ARBITRARY CINEMA: THE LAUGHING WOMAN (1969)

Join me in the confines of my house on the hill, where every week I’ll be sharing with you a seemingly random review of a movie that’s come across my horror-nerd radar in the middle of the night. So come join my on the couch. It may give you some insight into the way our referential minds connect films, it may introduce you to something you never knew existed, or it may give you a rash that requires a 7-day ointment treatment.  Or, maybe none of that matters in the end–because this is ARBITRARY CINEMA..

 

THE LAUGHING WOMAN (1969)

 

unnamed (6) It’s no secret that the horror film is often accused of being misogynistic. There are examples in nearly every sub-genre that certainly can validate that argument. The scantily-clad women murdered at the gloved hands of a killer in Giallos, the big breasted nympho victims of the Slashers, the damsels in distress of 30’s and 40’s cinema who only survive with the aid of a man. Yet, the worst of all, is what I often dub as “brorror” (bro-horror) like 2013’s NURSE 3-D. Here is a movie that lays its intentions as thin as the clothing its star wears. Google image-search the movie and you’ll be treated to a bevy of shots of Paz De La Huerta’s nude body covered in blood. (Go ahead and try it out, I’ll wait). Now, I’m certainly no prude to the eroticism of/in horror, but when most of your promotion for a film is just a naked woman painted with blood, something tells me you’re relying more on her “assets” as a selling point than yours as a filmmaker. Some loved Nurse and enjoyed it for the schlock it was. However, it stands more as desperately sexist propaganda geared towards the machismo bros that are just looking for “some tits and blood”.

Let me go on record here and say I don’t think horror, as a whole, is any more chauvinistic than any other genre. Don’t get me wrong, all the sub-genres I just mentioned (excluding brorror) house some of my favorite films of all time. My larger point is that because it’s a genre that embraces uncompromised diversity in subject matter, it sometimes gives a voice to those who actually have nothing worthwhile to say. In these instances, the objectification of women merely serves as a plot device to propel adolescent male fantasies of domination and they’re either meant to be tamed or worth their weight in cup size. We rarely get a glimpse into the reasoning behind the subject’s utter disdain of females and yet, we never question why that is. Could it be projection of the director or writer’s psyche? Is it meant to pander to the small portion of sexist horror fans as some bro-form of camaraderie? Now that you see my line of thinking, you can understand why, when I sat down to watch Piero Schivazappa’s 1969 sadomasochistic thriller THE LAUGHING WOMAN (aka THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN in the UK), I was expecting just another male-driven fantasy. Instead, it completely defied my expectations, and was kind of crazy brilliant in all the right ways.

At first glance, it sounds like pure sleaze: a wealthy bachelor, who sadistically tortures and murders women, kidnaps a journalist as the next pawn in his psycho-unnamed (5)sexual games. Wait a minute, with the exception to the murdering and kidnapping, this just sounds like 50 SHADES OF GREY, and everybody knows that 50 Shades was a film that, at best, was the kind you snuck into the basement to watch on Cinemax, while your parents were asleep, when you were like 12 years old–not something you willingly pay $11.50 to see. However, keep in mind that Laughing Woman is an Italian film, created in a time when Europe was producing some stellar, zany, cult favorites and while the two definitely have plot similarities, they are polar opposites. Where one is a satirical film that will actually bring us into the psyche of the sadist, giving us insight to what drives his chauvinism and explain his behavior, well, the other is 50 Shades of Grey.

From the beginning, the tone of the film seems–peculiar. There are some definite giallo tropes sprinkled in but the dialogue is almost playfully tongue in cheek, as though it were satire. Maria (Dagmar Lassander) meets with Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) to discuss male sterilization versus female contraceptives. When he asks her if she is for/against sterilization, she coolly looks down his package, responding “I’m all for it”. As it should surprise no one, Sayer is not too keen on sterilization, griping that “It is essential the fertility of the man should remain intact”. Now, it could just be mistaken as bad acting, but there’s something hyperbolic about the way these two speak. The choice of words seems far too clever to serve as just wooden filler. At best, a lot of the dialogue tends to be either satirical commentary or, at worst, surprisingly quotable ala BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.

unnamed (4)  Before you know it, Sayer has kidnapped her to his swanky home that can only be described as retro-futuristic kitsch. You know, the kind of set designs that made cinema of late 60s and early 70s just that much cooler, including a bird perch that he swings on bare-assed like some stilted gymnast (after a bubble bath no less). The kitsch extends beyond set design; as the way Sayer berates Maria is sometimes so theatrical that it all comes off as parlor tricks designed to hide the emotionally-crippled boy inside him. At one point, he hoses her down in an empty swimming pool and photographs himself with his foot on her head, like a proud game hunter post-kill. It would all be shocking if it didn’t all seem like an elaborate lie. You begin to get the distinct impression that there’s more bubbling just below the surface; that it’s not just another film that forces us to sit through the degradation of the female lead, offer no insight into the mind of the antagonist, kill one of them off and just leaves things as another senseless exercise. Well, there is, and as The Laughing Woman rolls into its second act, Sayer’s visage of dominance starts to crack and its first major twist occurs. Oh, did I forget to mention that this is also the point where it becomes some sort of fucked up love story?

Yes, if it’s first quarter can arguably be considered a giallo, then the brunt of the middle’s sexual proclivity brings to mind the erotic playfulness of Roger Vadim. When Sayer watches Maria dance around a carpeted space-age pad wearing nothing but a sheer wrap, you can’t help but be reminded of Jane Fonda’s zero-gravity undressing in BARBARELLA’s title sequence only one year earlier. As already mentioned, this amalgam of genres was commonplace with Eurocult movies of the 1960’s and one can only assume it’s because everyone was on a healthy dose of hallucinogens, casual sex, or both. This is also the point in the film unnamedwhen we gain insight into Sayer and where his insecurities and sadism derive from, essentially unwrapping the mystery of the first half and delivering some actual moments of poignancy. Just by the time our minds have come to terms with the idea that these two unlikely candidates have somehow fallen in love, we jump into the final act, which gets even stranger and darker.

Before all that, let’s be realistic guys and gals, I’m not going to tell you very much. Keep in mind, I’ve already left a lot out for the sake of keeping the film a mystery. The mere fact that I’ve even told you there’s a few major twists to the film is already too much of a spoiler because The Laughing Woman is best experienced by going in with no idea of what you’re getting into. I will say, however, that my statement in the beginning was purposeful and pertains to the key brilliance of the third act, essentially forcing the viewer to reevaluate everything they’ve seen in the previous two, leaving you wondering who the real subjugator in the story was all along. There’s one great set piece, reminiscent of something you’d find in Jodorowsky’s THE HOLY MOUNTAIN 3 years later, that’s almost too good to spoil, but I will give you a hint though–vagina dentata.

At the end of it all, I’m not exactly sure what category I’d put THE LAUGHING WOMAN in. Some may see it as a giallo, satirical comedy, an erotic thriller, softcore porno, there’s even a small bit of revenge western in there, or maybe a cocktail of them all. Honestly, that’s what I love about it. It’s the kind of movie that, had you snuck into your parents’ basement to watch, you may just end up feeling like a strange pervert for enjoying it. But hey, no worries, I did too.