Through a complicated series of events, I recently decided to delve into the world of X-rated movies once again, specifically the “roughie” exploitation variety. I’ve been in a dark mood lately due to the stress of the protracted election results, the worry that Trump might win, fearing the consequences of his non-concession, plus COVID heating back up. I wanted to embrace depraved media that paralleled the grim emotional state I’ve been feeling. (I had plans to meet long distance friends and extended family during Thanksgiving weekend which fell through as a result of the recent spike in cases. So, I’m not a happy camper right now.) Certainly morbid curiosity has played a role too; I’m sure there comes a time in every cinephile’s life when they feel ready to experience the most repugnant and controversial offerings of this diverse medium. I’ll probably do a blog post about this subject in the near future.
In the meantime, my endeavor has led to some tangential thoughts regarding the film which inspired my appreciation for vintage celluloid sensuality in the first place: Femina Ridens. For those who might have missed them, I’ve already addressed the subject twice on my blog over the past year, so check those out too if you’re interested. In addition, there seems to be a lost entry in the world of classic porn which I haven’t seen anyone else discuss in-depth yet. Let’s address that particular topic first.
Not Just Another Woman (1973): A Lost Gem?
While I was looking for bizarre and so-insane-you-can’t-look-away exploitation films from the ’70s, I came upon The Defiance of Good (1975). There was a throwaway line in an article about how it was one of only two pornos to be advertised by billboard in New York. The other being…wait for it… Not Just Another Woman (1973), starring Tina Russell and directed by Toby Ross. It’s about a swinger couple whose lives are thrown for a loop when the husband meets his wife’s sister, a nun, and falls madly in love with her. Typical porn chic wackiness ensues.
What makes this one particularly interesting is that it’s more or less a lost film. I’ve come upon one website advertising a recent screening, plus another advertising a vintage screening. Besides these two, only basic info on the plot, cast and crew could be obtained from a cursory google search. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no footage, no screencaps, no trailer and very few places online where the film has been discussed at all. On IMDb it’s only been rated 13 times (almost as few as Uccidere in Silenzio, the subject of another recent search effort of mine) and there are no user reviews. According to word of mouth, it’s supposed to be good, though.
Right now, the only hard evidence of its existence is this gorgeous poster and a newspaper clipping from the Las Angeles Free Press reviewing it. Based on the online accounts of a recent screening, I assume that at least one print exists, but it’s probably a safe bet there was never a home video release and that it’s currently unavailable to the general public. Therefore, I think I’ve found myself a new pet project. This one looks to be like a fascinating gender-swap of another lost media “white whale” of mine, Him (1974). So far, I’ve contacted the only two companies that have come up in my searches for the film–the Vinegar Syndrome and DistribPix–to ask if they have copies/info. I’ll update if I ever hear back. (Fingers crossed!)
Why Femina Ridens is Still the Greatest Accomplishment of Erotic Cinema
I’ve only seen so many, but the more vintage adult films I watch the more it occurs to me that Femina Ridens is a masterpiece in a league all its own. I feel I may have spoiled myself by catching it at the beginning of my foray into ’60s-’70s erotic cinema, because it set the bar too high for anything else to follow. I’d like to briefly explain why I think that is.
1) Its focus is laser-sighted on the two romantic leads, with as few distractions as possible from their evolving relationship. While the script may not be Wuthering Heights level complexity, we get a decent insight into each person’s motivations so we feel like we know them when it’s over. So many other sex flicks, even from the golden age, neglect to develop their protagonists beyond the one-dimensional caricature or plot device. (For example, as much as I wanted to love The Defiance of Good (1974), I never felt like I got to know the two leads, Cathy and Dr. Gabriel, as individuals with their own past and motivations.) Often in porn the main character has sex with multiple partners throughout the course of the story, which prevents anyone from being fleshed out as three-dimensional people. Personally, I’d argue it’s difficult to get invested, much less aroused, if the viewer couldn’t care less about the participants involved onscreen.
2) It deals with an essential topic, yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. Femina Ridens is about the confusing, exciting and often hurtful interplay between men and women. Our stand-in for the men is Dr. Sayer, who fears the gentler sex and believes they have all the privilege in modern society. His views represent the foundation of Men’s Rights groups and even dangerous extremists like the incel community today. Yet, his hatred is tempered by how intentionally over-the-top his rants are written as well as their genesis. (Like, really man, all this because of some scorpions you saw as a kid??) For the women we have Maria, whose efforts to give Sayer blue balls are accompanied by surreal humor: from the train gag, to the dwarf bellhop and effeminate waiter.
There’s always just enough absurdity going on to keep the audience at ease without diluting the profound observations about gender dynamics going on throughout. So many pornos stray too far in one direction for their own good. For example, Teenage Trouble (1973) is too goofy for me to care about its bare semblance of a plot while most of the exploitation/”roughie” hardcore smut I’ve seen so far revels in how much dread it can inflict on the audience. The only other erotic film I’ve seen get this balance right so far is Water Power (1976). In that movie, the pervasively foreboding atmosphere and brutal rapes are made tolerable by the ridiculousness of its premise as well as the hilarious hospital role play scene.
3) It’s not a one-note screenplay, where an overbearing tone bogs down the momentum. Femina Ridens begins with some disturbing subject matter like abduction, non-consensual BDSM, threats of violence and forced servitude. It’s enough sexual deviancy to make a person aroused (or at least attentive), wondering what could happen next. Yet writer/director Piero Schivazappa knows exactly when enough’s enough and switches gears for awhile. Just as the sadomasochism starts to feel a bit too familiar, we shift to some lighthearted frolicking in the meadows and a romantic meal. Whether you’re kinky or vanilla, there’s at least one set piece here that tickles your fancy. As if to emphasize the change in tone (and the new balance of power between Maria and Sayer), the physical setting transitions from interior to exterior as well. When Sayer and Maria leave his sex dungeon for the open fields after being cooped up in there for almost an hour, it’s such a powerful moment and really grabs the audience’s attention as a result. In fact, this might just be my favorite individual shot in any motion picture.
The constant mistake I’m noticing with so many other sex films is they beat a dead horse and overstay their welcome. A perfect example is Forced Entry (1973), which is an exhausting slog of grotesque brutality that has no business being as long as it is. (Even if the viewer has a rape fantasy, after 1:22:00 of it, anyone would lose the thrill and just feel disgusted with themselves for indulging in such fare.) Soft-core porn, like Camille 2000 (1969) can be guilty of the same problem even without the constant ugliness onscreen. (I can’t tell you how sick I was of those rich, stuck-up yuppies by the time that film was over–and it did not need to be two hours long.) Femina Ridens avoids this issue with the brilliant role reversal, where Dr. Sayer stops forcing Maria to submit and suddenly she’s manipulating him. Just when we seem to be settling into a routine, the movie pulls the rug out from under us and keeps things fresh as a result.
4) It makes use of classic storytelling techniques like symbols, motifs, and themes. This may sound silly but very few other erotic films do this, in my experience. There’s callbacks to communicate to the audience that looks are deceiving: the antique knives, the portraits of various germs, Maria’s monologue about cats and even the bizarre radio program detailing how the stars can astrologically cause sexual aberrations in people. Thus, everything beautiful has a hidden dangerous side. These details build towards the reveal that women (represented by their stand-in, Maria,) are far more powerful than they appear. There’s both spoken and visual symbols, like Sayer’s scorpion monologue and the giant vagina dentata, to further illustrate that theme. Femina Ridens knows exactly what it wants to say, and every individual component of the film works in perfect harmony to express that message. In stark contrast, I’ve seen pornos like The Lickerish Quartet (1970), which seem to want to convey some kind of deep message but end up becoming a jumbled mess since they have contradicting elements and a disjointed presentation.
5) Finally, Femina Ridens has additional aesthetic merits beyond the sex appeal of its cast, allowing it to rise above the status of just a skin flick and into the realm of art. Everything from the beautiful score by Stelvio Cipriani, the gorgeous locales, the lavish interior decorations, to the amphicar, is a feast for the senses. You can watch it even if you’re not horny; it holds up to the scrutiny of analytical viewing as well as the abstract, emotive thought processes of stoned viewing. While it may not have been their purpose to achieve the same feat, other erotic films are often limited to the proverbial dingy backrooms of public discourse as a result of their single-minded purpose. (Though to be fair, I’d argue this says as much about our repressed and self-abasing society where nipples are considered more offensive than violence.) I’m not saying all porn has to strive for mainstream appeal among the straight-laced community, but I do think an artful approach to soundtrack and cinematography is a plus. (It should be noted that The Lickerish Quartet, for all its other shortcomings, is the only peer to rival Femina Ridens with respect to the beauty of its music and photography.)
There’s really no comparison; in all respects Femina Ridens is the crowning achievement of cinema erotica. I’d even go as far to say that it’s arguably the best movie ever to tackle the subject of sexuality and gender relations. (The only worthy contender for that distinction is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as far as I’m concerned.) I know I talk about this film a lot, but that’s only because it merits all of the accolades it can get. If ever there was a buried gem of the motion picture world deserving of a larger audience, I say to you now and forever that it is Femina Ridens.
Not all of these are from porn, but they all pertain to films associated with sexuality/eroticism.
The cover image for this post is comprised of two posters and the novelization for Defiance (aka The Defiance of Good). The US version, on the far left, was printed on a billboard and officially recognized by the State University of NY as being one of the best film posters of 1974.