I’ll just come right out with it; Femina Ridens (translation: The Laughing Woman) is an absolute masterpiece. Not merely a magnum opus among soft-core erotica, or of Euro-exploitation movies, of Italian “sleaze,” nor any other qualifiers I see other reviews tack on to it. It’s a brilliant and sincerely moving work of art in its own right, worthy to stand alongside any mainstream classic. It manages to capture that sweet spot between an erotic guilty pleasure one might enjoy without ever telling a soul and an undisputed example of quality craftsmanship in the medium of film, which one feels compelled to study at length. This is where the emotional resonance of Vertigo, the art-house abstractions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sensuality of porno chic films from the ’70s all intersect with spellbinding results. Every frame stands alone as a gorgeous still photo, thanks to the cinematography as well as the many beautiful interiors, natural landscapes, fashionable clothes and attractive players which populate the screen. If one is able to accept the story for what it is, (a surreal parable about the interplay of the sexes) as opposed to a logical sequence of events, then they’re all set to enjoy one of the most unforgettable experiences which the cinema has brought us.
The tragedy is that Femina Ridens never got the recognition it deserves except from some film buffs online who can appreciate obscure foreign films. Neither the director (Piero Schivazappa) nor the other two writers went on to do much else of note which is shocking considering the unusual talent present in this lone outing. What’s more, I haven’t been able to find any information on the film’s conception or production during my research for this essay; there isn’t even a trivia section in the IMDb page. It makes this whole thing like the visual equivalent of those forgotten one-off bands who released a single album only to disappear from the historical record entirely. And that’s unfortunate, because this is the kind of movie which ought to have developed a cult following akin to The Big Lebowski, The Room or The Rocky Horror Picture Show by now. And, in praising it here, I hope to aid in the process of its widespread rediscovery. It’s too bizarre and too entertaining to be relegated to the unknown.
If this short review thus far has inspired you to check this movie out for yourselves, then stop now and do so before reading ahead. Go and enjoy a one of a kind experience with an open mind, with the added bonus of not knowing what insane twists and turns await. If you’ve already seen it, or need more convincing into why Femina Ridens is worth your time, then keep scrolling down for a spoiler-laden commentary.
Discovering a Buried Gem
I discovered Femina Ridens completely by accident, during an aimless afternoon with a random YouTube music playlist going in the background. By chance, the almighty algorithm suggested “Mary’s Theme” to me. It was a particularly beautiful instrumental so I hit repeat a few times and googled the track and composer (Stelvio Cipriani by the way!). It turned up results for the film and boy…the plot synopsis was pretty much the last thing I would have ever expected to come upon by investigating such a delicate track. For the uninitiated who chose to delve this far, Femina Ridens is about a beautiful reporter named Maria (Mary in the Italian language original) who inadvertently offends the wealthy philanthropist Dr. Sayer. In retaliation for her seemingly anti-male opinions regarding sterilization, he lures the woman to his house with the intention of torturing her for sexual gratification. Wow. How could I not look further into this rabbit hole? I soon came upon the second best song on the film’s soundtrack, Femina Ridens (Cantata Version) and became somehow even more intrigued. Under what circumstances could such disparate pieces of music fit together, and how could one make a film of such horrifying subject matter while utilizing such a paradoxically fun, uptempo and empowering theme?
I just knew this was something I had to see for myself, so I found a place to stream it online. (I’ve since bought the Shameless Edition DVD to support the cast and crew.) The first viewing I didn’t know quite what to expect, and indeed it seemed like the director was purposefully trying to defy explanation by throwing every offbeat twist at the screen. I initially feared the movie might be an exhausting slog of grisly horror and gratuitous violence which served no further purpose shock value. To my immense delight, it turned out to be one of the most playful and thought provoking films I’d seen in years. The inspired photography and humorously on-the-nose symbolism (Femina Ridens opens with men filing into a giant vagina with teeth!) grabbed my attention from the start and the story brushes through the setup after only a few minutes to get to the goods. Before I knew it, we were in the midst of some kinky BDSM fantasy put to celluloid. This is coupled with Dr. Sayer’s impassioned ravings about the duplicitous and cruel nature of women, including the conspiracy that they want to eliminate men from the fertilization process and rule the world.
Then after about 20 minutes or so, as that starts feeling somewhat routine, something truly extraordinary happens…
The Beauty Behind the Bondage
Femina Ridens has a heart. It’s not crass male fantasies about dominating women, and Sayer’s monologues (psychologically interesting though they were) give way to a genuine confession of vulnerability. He’s never killed anyone before, he’s just afraid of women and putting up a front to pretend he’s in control. For all his musculature and extravagant wealth, the attraction and emotional reciprocation of women is the one thing he can’t guarantee for himself. As a child, he saw two scorpions mating and the female consumed her male counterpart after the act was over. It was this experience which began to shape his misguided views on the nature of sexual relations. It took Maria’s own touching monologue regarding a consensual love scene (as well as her strip-tease dance on a chic coffee table) to finally convince our male dom that it’s more pleasurable to enjoy the company of women as opposed to hurting them. In our modern society of incels, redpills and Men Go Their Own Way-ers, there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
There are two fantastic moments where each character delivers a small but touching soliloquy in a moment of honesty. Sayer’s reveals that his machismo is all an act. Maria’s is particularly stunning because it is both the first tender exchange in the whole story and her theme music makes its first appearance. From then on, we are treated to several scenes of this couple, who until this point were in a strictly adversarial relationship, suddenly flirting, joking around and even frolicking in the meadow. This is the scene everyone else seems to make fun of (though as far as I can tell, most of it is in good fun as opposed to true disparagement.) And to be sure, in any other movie this would be so wildly out of place it’d be comical. Yet, Femina Ridens is not just any other movie.
It may be the beautiful background score, it may be the comforting reprieve after the first 40 minutes of Sayer’s kink dungeon and bleak worldview, or it may be the sincere manner in which the scene plays out. But against all the odds as well as any semblance with regard to the “rules” of movie-making, the meadow frolicking segment of the film just plain works. (Due to this Femina Ridens‘ impressionistic approach to filmmaking and dreamlike atmosphere, I believe it is able to get away with this hard left turn where a more serious/believable drama would have faceplanted.) It’s by far my favorite sequence in the movie, because it feels so gentle and warm. We’ve seen Maria go through so much, witnessed her on the brink of death, and now we get to watch the monster who hurt her learn to love again. In putting so much investment into these characters’ growth and plight, the sight of them finally happy together is a welcome reward.
There’s just something really engaging about the whole experience, the impossible rise and fall of this couple who came together in hostility and learned to love along the way. I definitely felt that on some level during my first viewing, but it was the second time around where it just clicked with me in a very personal way. This time, I watched it stoned with my boyfriend, in a heightened emotional state, comforted in his presence and with my already analytical mind running on overdrive. In those conditions I was especially willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the frivolity of our protagonists without letting pedantic over-analysis or cynical realism get in the way. Moreover, I believe that the joy of your partner’s company, separated from the worries of work or rude strangers and other bullshit, is the dream we are all striving for in our humdrum existence. The meadow and castle retreat sequences encapsulate this tempting fantasy better than any other scene I can recall from a motion picture. The next day, my boyfriend and I spent nearly every waking moment together and I was just in a haze of satisfaction, “Mary’s Theme” constantly replaying in my head as we got to live the fantasy of that meadow stroll in our own way together.
It was after that second viewing with my partner that Femina Ridens shot up to being among my top 5 all-time favorite films, rubbing elbows with Vertigo, Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back and Lawrence of Arabia. That may sound crazy to some but I mean it. It fulfills my need for a reassuring feminine fantasy, the idea of taming a wild man and bringing out his best. If you’re into BDSM as a submissive it’s the dream of being dominated by a truly intimidating partner, one who makes you a part of his fascinating lifestyle. Yet somehow, these deeply emotional connections to the film are in no way hampered by its overt humor (example: the train with woodwind players) nor its wacky balls-to-the-wall little touches. I mean, there’s an amphicar, an effeminate waiter in a powdered wig, a dwarf butler, and a man with an eye patch walking around in some scenes. Maria walks into the camera with a devilish smirk upon receiving Sayer’s address and their final showdown is filmed like a spaghetti western standoff in the pool–complete with music that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sergio Leone soundtrack. Somehow these lighthearted irreverent details don’t detract from the psychological climax of Sayer’s redemption. (Or vice versa.) In lesser hands, these disparate elements very easily could have diluted each other.
The War of the Sexes
Now, as anyone who’s seen Femina Ridens (or considered its translated title, The Laughing Woman) knows, eventually Maria extracts her revenge on Dr. Sayer in an act of feminist domination. The foundation was there since the beginning, with Sayer turning pathogens into artistic paintings, his handsome antique knives, elaborately decorated torture chambers and Maria’s monologue about cats. There’s a motif throughout the film of looks as deceiving and danger coming in deceptively beautiful packages. Even the meadow and castle segments, so sweet at first glance, are revealed to have been part of Maria’s trap all this time. A closer look reveals that she continuously denies Sayer the act of getting off; each time he initiates and things heat up she immediately runs away or otherwise stops him. In her own way, Maria is now torturing her male pursuer and the roles have been reversed.
It’s definitely a satisfying twist, and while a part of me actually wanted Sayer’s redemption and domestication to be real, I don’t think a happy ending between a woman and her tormentor would have gone over well with audiences then or now. It makes sense for Maria to kill Sayer both as a cathartic moment of revenge and as an allegory to the fact that women truly do have a good deal of power over men. The challenge for both of us is to use the power we have, be it physical strength or manipulation and seduction, without abusing it. For whatever his horrific crimes, Sayer at least stayed his hand and tried to live in peace with women once he was confronted with the gravity of his actions.
I do like to believe that the reason Maria is so much more ruthless than Sayer, to where she could complete the fatal climax, is that she’s had to live her whole life getting mistreated by men like him who don’t repent. (Or if they do, it’s only after they’ve already hurt her.) Her scrapbook of victims in the finale sheds light on the long awaited vengeance of a previously downtrodden, Italian Estella Havisham who was forced by circumstance into learning how to fight back. Perhaps to be a woman living among men is to endure their hatred and resentment when you’re not fighting off their lust and objectification. Perhaps all Maria wants is to live in peace without men’s every action revolving around some kind of passionate response towards her mere existence. I don’t know, the film only provides the basic framework for its allegory to make sense and the details (both about real life gender struggles and the fleshed out lives of its fictional characters) are up for subjectivity and speculation. By keeping the players vague, it allows them to be a stand-in for all members of their respective gender, so viewers can fill in the details according to their own experiences with the opposite gender.
*ASIDE: Let’s get it straight I’m NOT defending the literal things Sayer does in the movie: kidnapping, molestation, threats of violence, etc. But if we continue to read the characters as abstract personifications of their gender and their actions in the film to be exaggerated metaphors for the less flashy but very real injustices men and women commit against one another every day…then yeah. I am, on that level alone, willing to give the reformed Sayer his second chance.
The Battle of the Sexes
As I mentioned earlier, Femina Ridens is at its heart a surreal parable about the interplay between men and women. The plot itself is completely nonsensical and could never happen in a realistic setting. But anyone watching who’s constantly bemoaning how implausible the events are is missing the point. The story is merely the setup for what writer-director Piero Schivazappa is trying to express in his art. What we’re meant to do is focus on these two people, ambassadors of the sexes, and their developing interactions together. It’s a story meant to operate on that same dreamlike pseudo-logic of a far more well-known film (and another favorite of mine), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the character dynamics and emotional payoff reign supreme.
It probably speaks to why I came to love Femina Ridens so much, these similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (If you’ve been reading my blog thus far, you know that’s my all-time favorite film.) Vertigo begins with a would-be femme fatale duping an emotionally vulnerable man, unwittingly setting off a passion she cannot control. In the second half, Scottie’s insatiable longing leads him to abuse Judy emotionally, economically and, in the last sequence, even physically. It uses supernatural possession as a metaphor for that lustful obsession which both empowers and destroys women as well as men in different contexts. There are several cues throughout the film (Gavin’s previous manipulation of Judy, the Carlotta story, the Sequoia tree’s rings, the antique Spanish mission, etc) which evoke the past. This alludes to the memories of Madeleine which Scottie is continuously trying to relive as well as the concept that this male-on-female cycle of abuse has been a continuous plague throughout history.
On the other hand,
Femina Ridens begins with an insecure man compensating for his fear of women by trying to dominate his prisoner, only to reveal that she had him eating out of her hand the whole time. It uses BDSM as a metaphor for the shifting power dynamics between men and women. Ultimately, men may be the more physically strong and upfront about asserting their power, but women triumph in their subtle ability to sway men’s sympathies through their seductiveness. There are numerous references to both human and animal sex habits and reproduction, all of which are seen in the context of inequality between the genders. This complements the idea that attraction is an unequal power exchange between male and female. Whether it be overt as in sadomasochist tortures or subtle as in lackadaisical holidays to the country, someone is always expressing power over the other.
The two are cinematic siblings, complementing the themes of the other but each ending with the opposite sex on top. Pop Leibel’s line “there are many such stories” as well as Scottie’s descent into the very force of harmful possession he initially sought to protect Madeleine from implies that men have always dominated women. Meanwhile, Maria’s stealthy execution of her captor and the shots of men (including Dr. Sayer) herded into the symbolic vagina dentata are the counterpoint. They imply that men, for all their financial success (all of the victims in Maria’s scrapbook in the end are wealthy or in positions of power in society) are equally defenseless when it comes to feminine charm. For all the privilege which wealthy men flaunt in public, in private they are slaves to seductive women like Maria. These two would make for a fantastic double-feature, not just for their corresponding theses on sexuality but also their shared impressionistic philosophies to film-making itself.
Additional Stray Thoughts
- There is a lot of not-so-hidden phallic imagery in the film (to say nothing of the monolithic vagina sculpture which dominates the climax and opening titles). For example, look at how Sayer holds the long pillow during Maria’s monologue about redeeming himself and having sex in the fields. Or the way he holds various knives and pointed objects (like the skewer with oysters on it at the castle). And of course there’s the train full of women playing long woodwind instruments to signify what Maria’s doing just out of sight below.
- I wonder if there’s more to the various portraits of infectious bacteria and viruses which Maria admires in the beginning of the story, besides the motif of beauty concealing danger? Perhaps those shapes and colors are a visual motif in their own right throughout the film? I haven’t made a point to sit through the movie with that analysis in mind but it’s on my to-do list.
- Finally, I wonder if there was purpose towards making Sayer’s office at work an elaborate indoor map of the world while Maria’s lair in the finale is a pure white interior? Perhaps it shows that a man’s ambition is to dominate those around him (as Sayer does by dismissing the eye-patch wearing colleague) and to conquer or extract resources from as much territory as possible. Meanwhile, women’s ambition is inner peace and tranquility away from the rat race outside. That’s why Maria’s quarters are a pure white and she’s holding that resplendent yoga pose.