Radio On


Release date: 26 May 2008

Distributor: BFI

Director: Chris Petit

Writer: Chris Petit

Cast: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff

UK/Germany 1979

100 mins

Finally available on DVD for the first time in the UK, Chris Petit’s Radio On is one of the most striking feature debuts in British cinema. A haunting, existential synthesis of thriller and road movie, it reflects a fascination with not only all things automotive but also the mythology of freedom and the lingering ennui that underpins the finest films in the road movie genre.

Previously the film editor at Time Out, Petit claims to have seen nothing on the English screen that corresponded to a modern life that for him combined ‘drift and boredom, Alphaville, JG Ballard and Kraftwerk’. An admirer of Two-Lane Blacktop and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Petit began to wonder why a British film could not explore the enduring theme of migration whilst presenting contemporary England as a cinematic landscape. While he was similarly enthralled by the austere aesthetic of Bresson, Straub and Rossellini, it was the films of Wim Wenders that indicated that a way of actually making films might be possible. Possibility became reality when the German responded to Petit’s overtures and became his Executive Producer.

Minimalist in plot, Radio On follows a young man (a suitably distant David Beames) as he travels by car to Bristol to investigate the death in mysterious circumstances of his brother. As he drives he encounters figures as rootless as himself: a soldier deserting from duty in Northern Ireland, a German woman looking for her lost child (Lisa Kreuzer, on loan from Wenders), and a rural rock ‘n’ roll loving garage mechanic with dreams of stardom (an early Sting cameo). Stunningly photographed in luminous monochrome by another Wenders regular, Martin Schäfer, the film offers a mythic and quietly compelling vision of a late and very gloomy 1970s England stricken by economic decline and stalled between failed hopes of cultural and social change and the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism.

In his preface to my road movies book Petit, who has carved out a simultaneous career as a novelist, eloquently writes of his love of driving and music, citing the portable radio cassette as one of the ‘greatest inventions of the twentieth century and the in-car stereo as the means by which the dreary reality of Britain could be transcended’. Given this appreciation of the relationship between music and motion it should come as no surprise that Radio On delivers one of the great film soundtracks, utilising the new wave sounds of David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Kraftwerk and Devo. But despite these pop accoutrements and despite suggesting an audacious new direction for British cinema, this undeniably alien and alienating work was met with suspicion and incomprehension on release.

Later celebrated by the writer Iain Sinclair in his book Lights Out for the Territory, Radio On‘s reputation has rightly remained in the ascendancy and it remains very much a personal favourite. Theatrically re-released to an audible fanfare by the British Film Institute in 2004, the film’s availability on DVD (again through the BFI) will give further pause for re-discovery. It’s a handsome package too, incorporating 1988’s 24-minute Radio On (Remix) project (a stunning digital video essay with radical disruption of the original soundtrack by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert), extended interviews with both Petit and maverick producer Keith Griffiths and essays by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, John Patterson, Ian Penman, Chris Petit, Sukhdev Sandhu and road movie guru Rudy Wurlitzer.

Jason Wood

Jason Wood is the author of 100 Road Movies (BFI Publishing).

Femina Ridens (The Frightened Woman)

Femina Ridens

Format: DVD

Release date: 14 April 2008

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Piero Schivazappa

Writer: Piero Schivazappa

Cast: Philippe Leroy, Dagmar Lassander

Italy 1969

86 mins

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