The Frightened Woman Review
The FilmWarning: this review contains spoilers.
Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman comes from a rather interesting period in the history of Italian popular cinema, after censorship had relaxed sufficiently to allow filmmakers to explore the seedier side of humanity, but before the country had become liberal enough to no longer be shocked and scandalised by frank depictions of sexuality and depravity. Released in the summer of 1969, The Frightened Woman is very much a product of its time, and all the better for it, walking the fine line between chic and kitsch and maintaining the balance between art-house and grind-house that makes so many of these films fascinating.
Maria (Dagmar Lassander), a journalist with feminist views, finds herself interviewing Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy), a philanthropist whose worldview can be more or less summed up as “men are oppressed, women are evil serpents who must be controlled in order to prevent society’s collapse”. Maria rather foolhardily accepts the offer of a drink with Sayer at his swanky bachelor pad, and before you can say “Holy 60s decor, Batman!” he has drugged her and made her his prisoner. So begins a perverted game in which the good doctor, determined to bend Maria to his will, uses her to work his anger against womankind in its entirety.
The film’s title, in its native Italy, is Femina Ridens, a Latin phrase which translates roughly as “the laughing woman”, a more spoiler-oriented but considerably more appropriate title than what was used to market it in English-speaking territories. This is a film in which nothing is as it initially seems, with the roles of master (or mistress) and servant continually being reversed. Schivazappa plays out the age-old battle of the sexes against a backdrop of jazzy lounge music and audacious art deco production design, exploring not only Sayer’s deep-rooted hatred-cum-fear of women but also his worst nightmare: to be redundant. In his eyes, the recent progress made by the women’s liberation movement points towards a future in which men are made extinct due to women no longer requiring them, and it is against such a future that he is desperate to protect himself and the world. Deluded, yes, but his motive is considerably better worked out than those of the petty misogynists who tend to popular films of this origin and vintage... on both sides of the camera.
What makes this all a bit frustrating, or rewarding, depending on your point of view, is that it’s unclear precisely what Schivazappa is attempting to say. As I hinted above, all is not as it seems, and Maria is not quite the innocent victims that the initial scenes make out. Perhaps Schivazappa, like Sayer, really does believe that there is a grand female conspiracy at foot to eradicate men... but then again, the film does end with a seemingly sincere call for women not to take abuse from men, but to fight back and “destroy them at their own game”. One of the elements that continues to fascinate me about films such as these, and indeed was one of the driving forces in my decision to undertake a PhD on the subject, is their strange air of ambivalence towards issues of modernity and sexuality. Given the time at which this film came along, it would be all too easy to view The Frightened Woman as the knee-jerk reaction of a filmmaker who, like many men in the 60s and 70s, was growing increasingly paranoid as a result of women’s burgeoning independence. I suspect that what’s going on here is considerably more complex than that, though.
Whatever the director intended, the film is clearly an exploration of control. Most films of this type which feature a female protagonist can be broken down into simple stories of a helpless woman falling into the arms of her handsome rescuer: it’s the ultimate male fantasy of the Good Man saving the damsel in distress from the Bad Man. The difference, here, is that there is no Good Man, only one man and one woman, with the roles of victim and aggressor becoming increasingly blurred as the film progresses. At one point, Maria asks Sayer why he is holding her against her will when he could have all the women he wants. The answer is that he isn’t interested in a woman who is with him by her own choosing: he has to break her will, to give her no choice. This is why Sayer reacts with such horror when Maria attempts suicide in order to escape from his clutches: his desire for control over her is so strong that he can’t bear the thought of her dying on her terms rather than his. In the shifting power dynamic between the two characters, there seems to be an implication that man wants to enslave woman but is ultimately utterly dependent on her. Sayer is obsessed with his own virility, continually exercising, checking for grey hairs, and so on. Of course, the ageing process is something that can’t be stopped, so perhaps the message is that any attempt to resist the tide of change is ultimately futile. I don't know, and that’s part of why the film is so interesting.
Whether all this theorising and analysis interests you is beside the point, because there is plenty of visual aural and eye candy to satisfy even the most ardent theoryphobe (did I just coin a new term there?). It’s beautifully shot and utterly entwined in the audacious stylings of the late 60s. The characters seem to live inside a surrealist painting, one populated with art deco architecture and furniture, and even a fascinating vagina dentata contraption, one large enough for a man to step inside and be swallowed by. There is a fascinating contrast between the classical paintings that adorn Sayer’s workplace and the anarchic, tripped-out world of his personal apartment. Likewise, I’m intrigued by the manner in which Sayer is continually associated with rigid, straight lines while Maria is shown in the context of smooth, flowing curves, best illustrated in the truly outstanding sequence in which Maria, wearing a costume of see-through bandages (which, incidentally, predates Milla Jovovich’s provocative getup in The Fifth Element by nearly three decades), performs a sensuous dance to Cipriani’s score. Intriguingly, this aesthetic is also used to highlight the shifting balance of power. At the start, while Maria is Sayer’s prisoner, she is frequently framed within or partially blocked by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, whereas later, as the nature of the captor/captive relationship is altered, the framing and architecture become more freeform.
Not quite trash and not quite art, The Frightened Woman represents Italian popular cinema at its most trippy. It’s just about as batty as they come, and I defy you to find another film that looks and feels anything like it. Beneath all that surface glitz, however, is a surprisingly deep construct, one that is likely to beguile and bemuse in equal measure.
Shameless Screen Entertainment have put The Frightened Woman out on a single-layer disc sporting a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and coming with the personal seal of approval of director Piero Schivazappa. The most complete version of the film in existence, this cut was assembled from a number of different sources according to Schivazappa’s own copy of the script. If nothing else, then, you’ve got to commend Shameless for doing the legwork necessary to put this copy together. It does, unfortunately, mean that a few scenes are of noticeably inferior quality to that of the rest of the film, having been inserted from what looks like it could be a VHS source, but this is a small price to pay when you consider that you are getting the fullest version in existence.
Unfortunately, despite the amount of work that has clearly gone into compiling this version, it pains me to say that the quality of the transfer is below average at best. There is a general lack of detail, with thick vertical halos suggesting overzealous filtering, while the jagged edges to diagonal lines that can be glimpsed throughout suggest a dodgy scaling job. It looks suspiciously like a good print has been spoiled by digital tomfoolery, which is a real shame, because, vast improvement though this is on the earlier US release by First Run Features, particularly in terms of its colour reproduction, it’s still anaemic and disappointing.
The only audio track provided is the original English mono mix, in dual-channel mono. Not unreasonably, it shows its age, sounding rather shrill and with a heavily compressed dynamic range. I doubt that the film has ever sounded considerably better than it does here, however, and it compares favourably to other films of this vintage and origin. Carelessly, no subtitles of any kind have been provided.
The only extra is what is described as a theatrical trailer, but which features a number of inauthentic-looking video-generated titles and edits. Trailers for other Shameless releases are also included: My Dear Killer, What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, Baba Yaga, Venus in Furs, Ratman and The Black Cat. It’s a shame, given the efforts Shameless went to in order to get Schivazappa’s approval of the DVD, that they weren’t able to secure an interview with him too.
As a nice touch, Shameless have also provided a reversible sleeve cover, allowing you to replace the rather tawdry artwork with which the film has been marketed on DVD with a reproduction of the original Italian poster. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t allow you to do anything about the tacky yellow border and rear cover.
The Frightened Woman is a fascinating gem in the mire of sexploitation, and an excellent addition to Shameless Screen Entertainment’s growing line-up of underappreciated Italian cult films. Unfortunately, the transfer, while a big step up on what was previously available, is still a disappointment, meaning that, while it is currently, as director Schivazappa’s endorsement on the front cover states, “the version of [his] film to watch”, ample room exists for improvement further down the line.
For further reading on The Frightened Woman, I recommend this great article by Keith Brown at Giallo Fever.
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