So this post will be like an unofficial “sequel” to my earlier analysis of Femina Ridens (aka The Laughing Woman). I hadn’t originally intended to do a follow-up but by chance I got my hands on the novelization and Shameless cut of the film recently. I have some things to say about both.
The book was written by Hadrian Keene, evidently as a promotion piece for the original US release of the film. (This version is called the Metzger print, by the way, and it was released by his production company, Audubon Productions. More on this detail later.) I originally bought the book on the off-chance it would flesh out the characters or perhaps shed light on potential excised scenes from the movie. As it happens, during my search I could only find the one copy available to purchase anywhere; even libraries had nothing on this out-of-print, obscure little book.
There were no great revelations in the text; it seems fair to say the film’s sequence was more or less already set in stone before reaching the US. This is about what I expected, but I had to be sure. IMDb lists an alternate runtime for Femina Ridens that’s 20 minutes longer than any known cut, and if nothing else it was worth it to disprove that bit of misinformation. (Even if you filmed every new scene from the novel it wouldn’t fill 20 extra minutes, and it’s pretty clear the novel’s differences from the film are original additions.) Barring two or three scenes, everything in the novel occurs in some form or other in the movie, it’s just that certain sequences are extended with more (largely forgettable) dialogue. While some of it is fascinating, the majority is a bit too wordy and, if any of it existed in some earlier version of the script, I can say the editors did well to cut it in the first place. There are a few “connecting” scenes in the book, like Sayer taking Maria to her room to get dressed between different bouts of torture, or driving home from the castle/restaurant. I doubt these were ever filmed, and if they were, it’s no great loss not to have them. These “new” scenes would have ruined the careful flow of the story on screen had they been included. (One of Femina Ridens‘ overlooked strengths is in its economical runtime; there’s not a second of extraneous material to detract from its steady, engaging pace.)
That’s not to say the novelization offers nothing of value, however. I enjoyed the small but revealing details regarding Sayer’s character in particular. Some examples include:
- Sayer refuses to speak to his prostitutes like they’re actual people, as this breaks his immersion in the fantasy that he’s really dominating them. He loathes it when one says “this time you really hurt me” (a line that survives in the film’s first scene) because it implies he hadn’t actually hurt her on the previous occasions. Sayer has developed a system where he brings out his checkbook, offers the women a gold fountain pen and lets them name their price on the check, then drops them off in town on Sunday night after a whole weekend of torture without having to speak to each other.
- Sayer makes a concerted effort to bury all copies of the Indian sterilization article which Maria asks for in their first scene together. Her coming to retrieve them wasn’t a one-off event as I had assumed in the film, instead she’d been pestering him for the articles for weeks and he kept ignoring her until finally he ran out of excuses.
- Sayer greatly resents all women in his day to day life. (This was heavily implied in the film but the novel provides specific examples, like a librarian whom he presumes to be making veiled orders in the form of requests.) The early pages are filled with his musings on women’s supposed vulnerability being a strength, and notes their ability to survive sex scandals which ruin men’s careers. The lone exception from Sayer’s ire is his secretary, too old to be a threat and too useful to replace, but his reliance on her frightens him at the same time. (She’s seen briefly in the film, granting Maria access to his office.)
- The motif in the movie about danger being concealed by beauty (in women, antique knives and germs) is extended to some wind chimes. Sayer is enchanted by them but acknowledges that they symbolize death in Chinese culture. I give the author props here for building on a pattern which the film had established.
- There is an extended flashback of Sayer meeting his favorite “weekend companion” (his term of choice–he hates the words “mistress” and “whore”), this being the one who cancelled so Maria could take her place. During this part of the story, she sizes up his character plain as day before the main sequence of events even begin: weak, coward, afraid of women, over-compensating, etc.
- Sayer is so overcome watching Maria have sex with his lifelike mannequin that he closes the division between their rooms and masturbates. He’s definitely more of an outright narcissist in his novelized incarnation, and this particular scene was merely the most glaring bit of evidence of that.
- Sayer seems more playful and want to taunt Maria in this version. He verbally spars with her during every torture scene, most prominently when she begins dancing. He practically flirts with her during this scene as well as the next when he teases the idea of putting her in the leather gimp suit. A lot of these additions are pretty substandard but there are a few gems, like the banter before they reach the castle where Maria says damsels should have taken care of themselves.
- We get far more insight into Sayer’s mental struggle between killing Maria or letting her go. We see that in that moment, he ceases to view her as a threat and is overcome by her terror and vulnerability. That male instinct to defend women kicks in and from there, he’s so smitten he allows her to have power over him even knowing the dangers involved in doing so.
- During the scenes in the meadow and castle, Sayer is keenly aware that Maria is intentionally giving him blue balls. He ponders the idea that she really is a dangerous harpy leading him to his own destruction just as he feared, yet he’s so overcome by lust he can’t help but go along with it and hope for the best. This is in contrast to the movie, where Sayer does appear annoyed at times, but mostly appears blissfully ignorant of Maria’s malevolent intent. This was one of my favorite differences in favor of the novel, it lends an air of foreboding dramatic irony that keeps the last third of the book exciting.
Unfortunately, the novel does not shed as much light on Maria as it does the male lead. But there are a few interesting details:
- We do learn that she’s on record as being a valued member of the foundation (which gets a name in this version–The Burnett Foundation, ironically named for a woman, Elia Burnett.) She has a reputation for being a loner, strictly work-oriented. Sayer sizes her up as the embodiment of the second-wave feminist, striving to be a model employee in order to assert herself over her male counterparts and prove her value.
- Her previous victims are alluded to far earlier. The disgraced foundation administrator whom Sayer lets go is revealed to be dead within the first half of the story. The general and clergyman are also referenced earlier as disgraced fornicators. The connection with Maria specifically is still saved until the end when they appear in her scrapbook. It is implied that she did not kill all of them, merely made them lose their position of power. (The foundation administrator committed suicide.)
- Maria is more talkative and fearless in this version. She throws barbs at Sayer often when she’s not sucking up to him (she calls him her role model at work and offers to be his partner and servant after first waking up in captivity). This is in contrast to the film where she’s mostly silent (apparently due to fear) but clearly stewing in resentment. Personally, I find the film characterization to be more realistic, both from the perspective of the helpless captive we’re meant to think she is and the careful mastermind she’s revealed to be. It doesn’t make sense to continually provoke an unstable man.
- The most crucial revelation for her character is that she could have potentially killed Sayer a lot earlier had she wanted to. Or escaped, for that matter. He allows Maria to drive the car away from the castle while he falls asleep in the passenger seat. This shows just how methodical Maria really is, she doesn’t play girlfriend for a day to bide time and kill Sayer as a means of escape, she has a routine carefully worked out and will not deviate from it. She enjoys killing in the moment of climax, like the scorpion Sayer feared her to be.
- True to the story’s title, Maria actually laughs as Sayer dies in the pool. (This is in contrast to the film where, strangely, she never laughs once.) During the lead up to this climax, instead of imagining himself walking into the giant vagina, Sayer instead silently compares Maria to a siren luring himself to his doom. This scene is peppered with references to mythological men whose lives were ruined by women, including Adam, Orpheus and Marc Antony.
- There is no discernible reason for Maria’s quest to seduce and murder (or otherwise dis-empower) men of prestige in society except that she considers their subjugation to be the natural next step of feminism. It was my “head-cannon” after watching the movie that maybe she had been raped or brutalized by men earlier in life and this was her personal revenge, but no such luck for any kind of nuance in the book. She laughs again at Sayer’s pictures from the meadow and regards her servile butler as an example of the modern emasculated male, subservient to the whims of his feminine master. (Honestly, our modern, polarized, online discourse would have a field day with this story if it were better known. I can just imagine it being used as a recruitment tool for incels, redpillers and proponents of Men-Go-Their-Own-Way.)
- During Maria’s triumph, as she browses through the pictures of Sayer and picks one for her scrapbook, there are various quotes pertaining to second wave feminism peppered through the text, almost at random. It is also made explicit that the sexually charged drawings of women around her room are meant to symbolize female domination of the world. (In the film, I wasn’t 100% sure what they stood for, and thought perhaps it was an abstract depiction of women being objectified by society since they’re conjoined with buildings, bridges and cars.)
The Various Prints of the Film
So, as I mentioned earlier, I recently bought the Shameless DVD which is said to be the best version available in English. Earlier in this post, I also mentioned the “Metzger Print” which was the original US release in the 70s and the source for most early VHS and DVD versions stateside. The Metzger print is of terrible quality, with an obnoxious pink hue saturating everything and rendering it unwatchable to informed viewers. You can see the subpar picture quality for yourself in this trailer below.
The Shameless DVD is fantastic in terms of picture quality and comprehensiveness. It contains extended sequences which I never knew existed before, because the version I first experienced (more on that in a second) was missing them. These extended scenes include, among other things, a longer cut of the final standoff in the pool, a longer take of Maria cuddling Sayer’s mannequin and her fondling Sayer himself in the fields. Unfortunately, these additions had to be sourced from subpar film stock, so the quality noticeably decreases. It’s worth it to see a more extended cut but the point is that a truly definitive English version of Femina Ridens still has yet to be released. (On that note, nothing makes you appreciate how fragile film really is until you fall in love with an obscure low budget one from before the digital age, it seems.)
The version of the film which I had first watched, and used as the source for my screencaps in my previous essay, is an unknown Italian language print I downloaded from the internet. This cut runs 1:24:33 including pre-credit titles and about 1:24:22 from the opening credit sequence on. There’s a company logo for “Surf Film” which is displayed before the film proper begins. Now, I’ve been tirelessly researching this movie online because I love it, and I want to know more about it. Unfortunately, official sources are scant to nonexistent so everything I’ve read comes from message boards and blogs like my own. During my excursions into these avenues, I have never once seen anyone mention anything about this “Surf Film” cut so I don’t know exactly how it stacks up but I can say it doesn’t have the previously discussed extended sequences present in the Shameless DVD for starters. I found a website for Surf Film and it lists Femina Ridens as in their catalog but I saw no substantial information about the print they’re using nor a place to buy a copy from them directly.
The reason any of this matters is that the “Surf Film” version does have an edge over the Shameless cut for me, and that comes in the form of the audio. Surf opted for Italian voices with English subtitles, while Shameless stuck to an English-voiced cut only. Now, the dub is not bad by any means but I, personally, greatly prefer the Italian voices. Italian-Sayer sounds much deeper and therefore more menacing, while his English counterpart sounds very generic and unassuming. Italian-Maria sounds sensual, like an experienced seductress at work, where her English twin is too high pitched and cutesy for my tastes. (Just compare this scene to this other one. The difference in vocals is night and day, to my ears.) Not only that, the actual wording is superior in the sub as opposed to the dub as well. There are small but significant changes to the dialogue which make all the difference. Just as one quick example, in the English version when Sayer gives Maria a flower in the castle-restaurant he says “for you.” In the Italian version, he says “I love you.” Regardless of your preference (I’m firmly pro-Italian in this and all other discrepancies) that is quite a big change that significantly alters the characterization.
For my money, the absolute best possible print of Femina Ridens would therefore include the Shameless print’s extended scenes but with Italian audio and English subtitles wherever possible. But that then leads to a whole other problem. I don’t know if an Italian language print of the film as comprehensive as the Shameless DVD even exists, and I’m not about to go blindly buying random expensive-to-ship, region-locked Italian DVDs and hoping for the best to find out. I read someone’s years-old comment on one of those aforementioned forums who mentioned an “Italian VHS” as having the most substantial runtime along with the Shameless DVD. But which VHS release were they referring to specifically, and is it really worth paying $40 on Ebay for a 30 year old foreign tape that’s likely degraded to hell anyway–just for a 480p resolution (at-best) print? I don’t think it’s worth it, not based off of a random internet stranger’s conjecture at least. These are the struggles we face, the fans of old films which have been callously neglected by their studios and distributors. This is where copyright laws, failure to preserve film negatives, and carelessly compiled, sporadic releases can actually lead to the death of art. It’s especially tragic in this instance considering Femina Ridens is an overlooked work of art begging for a widespread rediscovery.
I’ve toyed with the idea of taking the two versions I now own, Surf and Shameless, and editing together my own “Carbon Freeze Version” or “Cassandra Cut” as it were. I’d have to determine which of the two has the overall better picture quality and use that for the primary source. I hope to God Surf’s is it, otherwise that means a tedious effort to sync the Italian audio and English subtitles over the Shameless footage which may be outside my patience if not my skill level. But who knows, maybe someday…
On a final note, I really can’t begin to describe how saddened I am by the lack of sources there are when it comes to this little movie. There’s a reason I paid $20 for a cheap ~160 page out of print novelization, another $15 for a slightly longer cut of a movie I already owned and now I’m seriously considering spending an additional $45 for an Italian book that reviews this movie. I’m desperate for anything that might shed some light on this mystery. I would give anything to hear or read an interview from director Piero Schivazappa about the inspiration for this story, how the production came together, if any excised footage exists which we still haven’t seen* and what the initial reaction was in ’69. Any surviving cast and crew, especially the two leads, two other writers and cinematographer would be welcome too. If anyone reading this blog happens to have any links, sources or leads please send them my way. Thank you.
*According to wikipedia the film ran into some issues with censorship. One thing I’d love to know is whether there were supposed to be other tortures from Sayer that were more graphic and had to be cut. Or perhaps if the erotic scenes were supposed to be more explicit and less implied like in the scene posted below. (Also, since I’ve been talking about the novelization as well, it’s worth noting that this scene with the train occurs exactly the same in the novel too, which is weird since it works much better as a surreal visual gag. The amphicar itself is not in the book at all, it’s just a boring regular car.)