A deceptively mocking parable about the eternal fight between the sexes, Femina Ridens (aka The Frightened Woman) ratifies with ill-concealed irony the ‘natural inferiority’ of the male faced with female cynicism and rationality. Shot as an ambitious gamble by Piero Schivazappa in 1969, this is a film that deals with issues that were still socially censored at the time and would become political debates the following decade.
Terrorized by the sexual act due to a childhood trauma, Dr Sayer, the director of a philanthropic institute, regularly uses complying prostitutes to act out his sadistic fantasies until one day he decides to try it with a ‘real woman’. Stylishly performed by Philippe Leroy and the sensual Dagmar Lassander, the film boasts an avant-garde artistic direction, which pays homage – as specified in the final credits – to Claude Joubert, ‘Plexus’, and Giuseppe Capogrossi, and features a large statue of a woman with a pronged vagina that is a reproduction of the artwork by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely.
Set in Dr Sayer’s vast and futuristic villa, the audacious content of the film is matched by the stylish photography that contributes to the formal ambitions of this forgotten cinematic gem. Schivazappa icily and sarcastically breaks the characters’ bodies and minds, catching the spectator out with sadistic inventions unthinkable for the time; playing hide-and-seek with his audience, he simultaneously declares and denies his misogyny. The director dissects the outrages suffered by Maria’s body, framing it in close-ups, thus conveying the perverse psychosis of Dr Sayer, who is impotent in facing the erotic power of the female body. Maria, once untangled from the restraints of bondage, blows Dr Sayer’s mind up in the scene where she performs a teasing dance, gradually removing the veils wrapped around her almost naked body.
The narrative is interspersed with plasticized eroticism and sadomasochist practices touched by a marvellous sense of POP that has an immediate effect on the amazed spectator. To watch Femina Ridens today is an amusingly surprising experience because the film uses a morbid, psychedelic tone to describe the changes society would undergo in the immediate future, but also warning the audience against a dangerous drift towards female domination of society; this turning point is represented in the scene where Maria gives a blow job to a subdued Dr Sayer, an action humorously signified by images of a group of clarinet-playing women.
A nightmarish tale on the incompatibility of men and women, the film uses a psychedelic context to illustrate a gender issue still unresolved to these days; the finale boasts an astonishing mix of genres: the swimming pool scene is shot and musically arranged like a Western duel, putting an abrupt end to the director’s reflections on gender. Wrongly labelled as sexploitation, Femina Ridens anticipated a certain type of daring, sexually explicit, marginal Italian films and stands as one of the few attempts to analyse sex power relations from a Ferreri-esque point of view. In fact Schivazappa’s film bears striking similarities to Ferreri’s Il Seme dell’uomo (The Seed of Man), shot in the same (apocalyptic) year.
Celluloid Liberation Front