The Frightened Woman (Piero Schivazappa, 1969)
aka Femina ridens (The Laughing Woman)
Maria (Dagmar Lassander), a rather bookish and seemingly innocent young journalist is offered the chance to look at some files which will help with a report she is in the process of writing. Said files are in the apartment of one Dr. Sayer (Phillipe Leroy); a smart, well-groomed character who would appear to be the embodiment of respectability. Offered a hospitable glass of J&B, Maria accepts but moments after the liquid passes her lips she is on the floor unconscious. The “good doctor” takes advantage of Maria’s drugged state by whisking her away to his country retreat, where she awakes to the realization that her fate lies in the hands of a twisted lunatic; a man convinced that women will lead to the undoing of mankind and it soon becomes apparent that his plan is to lead her through numerous humiliating scenarios before killing her at the point orgasm.
Maria soon realizes that resisting Sayer’s twisted games is a futile task and accepts her fate, starting some games of her own and teasing the doctor’s reasoning with suggestions of sex without death, sex with tenderness and care instead of bondage and pain; filling his mind with thoughts of love and affection. Will this be enough to change the mind of a man who has killed so many women that he’s lost count?
Sporting bleached-blonde hair and buffed-up muscles, Phillipe Leroy’s Dr. Sayer commands a narcissistic onscreen presence, with his constant preening and exercising lending an air of superiority, and he flaunts his manliness for Maria at every turn. One particular scene has him taking a bath while Maria stands waiting with a towel. Rather than taking the towel from Maria or letting her dry him off, he leaps into the air and grabs a trapeze above the bath, practicing naked pull-ups. But it’s not long before both Maria and the audience deduce that beneath Sayer’s confident façade lies a mass of insecurities and a flaw that could lead to his possible downfall. Maria’s effect on her captor enables her to begin turning the tables on her him, with the line between who controls the balance of power blurring with each minute that passes…
Kicking off looking like it’s going to be little more than 90 minutes of misogynistic mind games peppered with the odd bout of S&M, ‘Femina Ridens’ thankfully turns out to be quite the antithesis of such an assumption. When Maria’s charms eventually allow Sayer to release his grip on her just enough for the couple to venture out into the countryside, the chance to see her take the upper hand is played out with some sequences that are surprisingly sexy and funny: most notably when the pair are out driving in Sayer’s boat-car (yes, you read that correctly) and pull up to a level crossing. While they wait for a train to pass, Maria puts her head down below the dashboard, with director Piero Schivazappa suggestively intercutting between a close-up of Sayer’s near-ecstatic face and a group of female band members blowing into their woodwind instruments onboard the open-topped carriage of the passing train!
Dagmar Lassander steals the film, transforming from a fragile waif to foxy temptress that isn’t afraid to dish out a blow job at the side of a railroad. It’s not just Sayer she’ll have enthralled, either; from the moment she starts her gauze-clad strip tease in Sayer’s lounge, any red-blooded heterosexual male will be left speechless and suffering love-struck palpitations.
Schivazappa’s directorial output consists mostly of TV productions, with only four other feature films to his name in a career dating back to 1962; a crying shame as ‘Femina Ridens’ is a cracking film on every possible level and one would’ve expected more from a man who set such a high benchmark with this one. Shot through with dazzling late 60’s chic, pretty much every scene is pure pop art heaven, filmed with style, framed to perfection and all topped off with an unforgettable Stelvio Cipriani score.
Picked up by Radley Metzger’s Audubon Film company for theatrical distribution in the USA, ‘Femina Ridens’ subsequently fared quite badly on home video, with a poorly-framed Audubon VHS coming out in the mid 90’s. A release from Redemption followed and although correctly framed, it suffered BBFC-imposed cuts. Shameless, in a brave move, decided to create the ultimate version of the film, incorporating footage from a variety of different sources, including that that was originally cut and amazingly, the film was passed with all previous cuts waived.
This definitive release has since been endorsed by a very happy Schivazappa and marks the first time that a complete version has been available on DVD anywhere in the world, but means a few additional elements had to be inserted into the print using footage of a lesser quality. Knowing this could potentially cause some annoyance with a small minority of die-hard aficionados, this was a bold decision on Shameless’ part and as far as I’m concerned, was the right thing to do. Though most of the inserts are noticeable, there were a couple that I didn’t spot at all and had to have someone point them out to me. Without a doubt, these additions will not spoil the enjoyment of the film and it would have been a massive shame to relegate them to a deleted scenes section of the disc, rather than putting them back into the film itself. This is a gamble that’s paid off and has resulted in a DVD that stands as Shameless’ best release to date.
Inserted footage aside, the first thing that strikes you is the vibrancy of the colour when compared to the old R1 DVD release from First Run; a transfer that had a muddy brown tinge and suffered from excessive frame damage. This isn’t the case with Shameless’ disc I’m glad to say, as the transfer is great and 16:9 enhanced to boot. Sound is presented by way of a solid 2.0 mono soundtrack which delivers the English dubbed version of the film. As usual the extras consist of a trailer reel for upcoming and current Shameless titles plus the now standard reversible cover featuring all new art work on the front and an original poster repro on the reverse.
This new version of ‘Femina Ridens’ is cause for celebration; a new, fully-revitalised version of an obscure curiosity. The film is a real treat and is presented in a version that won’t be bettered.