Tuesday, 18 February 2020

On a Thousand Walls #28: Orrore Popolare, Part 4

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh) (1971)
The Perfume of the Lady in Black
(Il profumo della signora in nero) (1974)


(More Italian cinema. Spoilers. Discussion of misogyny, with all you might imagine that entails. You know.)

The easiest thing to do when you're looking at the portrayal of women in classic horror from any country is generally to shrug and say, well, those were different times, and to an extent that's true, in that the way we did discourse forty or fifty years ago was different, and the terms in which we framed our expectations of gender roles were informed by societal mores, and the law, and what mum and dad were told by their mums and dads. But what that ignores is empathy.


To just dismiss the crappy, inhumane uses of women (and children, and men, and queer people, and disabled people, and minorities, OK, but let's stick with women here) in old movies as “what they did back then” and “of their time” is a terrible take. It suggests that our generation is morally better, more humane than its predecessors, which frankly isn't the case, because it's right now that nothing is being done about the Americans putting children in concentration camps, and until that and a million other horrors get fixed we don't get to sneer at our grandparents. And it's an excuse, both for us as we refuse to engage, and for them. Misogyny is misanthropy, and I don't mean that as an #alllivesmatter sort of statement, let me be clear – I mean that if you've got a crappy view of women, you've also got a crappy view of everyone else, because you're making everyone else complicit in the harm. Harming part of the human race damages the human race. Empathy is vital.

In relation to old movies, it's useful to talk about the difference between structural misogyny – I mean, the general way society dumps on women – and personal misogyny – people just, you know, hating women. That is, there is in any era an inescapable way that women are presented, and what this means is that yes, the portrayal of women is often going to be jarring, and it's not going to fit with current discourse. And it is possible that a film that was not made in our differently enlightened times, even one that plays on tropes harmful to women, might still nonetheless be able to say something true about a woman's story. There is, and I keep saying this, a place for empathy.

I recognise that this is not going to be enough for many viewers, and that it's easier for me to make the call because whatever the status of the clusterfuck that I laughably call my gender identity, I'm not a woman and I don't get to tell women how to react.

I've come up against this a lot while looking at classic Italian horror cinema. And it is fair to say that not one of the movies I've looked at is a landmark point in the advance of women's representation on film.

Film genres are not concrete. They intersect. Many of these films, which fall nebulously into the categories of giallo, or Orrore Popolare, also fall into that subgenre of “women losing their minds”, and no take on that is complete without at least mentioning Kier-La Janisse's magisterial book House of Psychotic Women, which I've mentioned before. It's one of those wonderful “checklist of your new favourite films” books, and without it I know I wouldn't have seen Szamanka, or Martyrs, or anything with Mimsy Farmer in it.

As far as giallo films go, the most common intersections with the Psychotic Women category follow a pretty straightforward pattern, that go something like this: a woman protagonist is stalked by a killer she knows. The people around her get murdered, one by one. She realises that she may know the killer. She gets increasingly manic, partly due to the people around her manipulating and gaslighting her. Eventually she is rescued. This is more or less how The Red Queen Kills Seven Times goes, for example.
In All the Colours of the Dark, which falls solidly into that realm, I felt that however exploitative and pervy that film was, it was still quite like the experience of abuse, of a person stitched up by the world surrounding her, and stitched up by the movie itself. I think part of that was due to Edwige Fenech's possible career-best performance as Jane, and the way that the film tips over into the surreal.

In Sergio Martino's preceding film, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Fenech plays Julie Wardh, an ambassador's wife with a roving eye and a (let me check my notes) blood fetish who finds herself stalked by a serial killer. Could it be her older, emotionally distant husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza)? Her abusive ex who is still stalking her (Ivan Rassimov)? Or her charming new lover (George Hilton)? Imagine the most depressing and misanthropic answer possible to that question, and you might be close.

On the way to this film's grim but admittedly satisfying denouement, we see woman after woman carved up with razors, copycat killings, doublecrosses and traps, two (two!) faked deaths, and the creative use of broken glass as a sex aid, all spiced up with psychedelic nightmares that, as they do in All the Colours of the Dark, refer to past trauma. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is not a patch on All the Colours of the Dark. The two films do bear comparison though: they were made just over a year apart by the same director in the same style with the same principal actors, with the same basic premise of a woman protagonist stitched up by several of the other characters, gaslit and deprived of agency.
Here, Fenech’s character is, OK, the sexually liberated woman who is allowed to be imperfect, but that’s not as a character. That’s as a fantasy figure. She’s an object of the camera’s eye. This is not Edwige Fenech's fault (and perhaps it's a useful point to make here that Fenech, a more than competent screen actor, is nonetheless largely remembered for a. being naked; and b. having showers). All the Colours of the Dark works because we’re on the side of Jane, and the film is about the way she is being abused, even while the film itself abuses her. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – which is just as beautifully made and beautifully soundtracked – just has a person whose positive attributes are barely even told to us, let alone shown. We don’t even really get much of a shape of Mrs Wardh’s so-called strange vice. She puts out. She has a couple of dreams about only mildly kinky things she's done in the past, and she acts guilty and weird when she sees blood, and that’s it, really. It's far more vanilla than it thinks it is, a straight guy's idea of what sexual deviancy constitutes.

I think it’s an instructive film to compare to the much more interesting All the Colours of the Dark, though, because the differences in affect in two otherwise very similar films, both of which have the signifiers of sexism, make one a film that is as much about the experience of misogyny at least as much as it is a misogynist film. But only one of them. And look, if sexism and the mistreatment of women in films is a dealbreaker for you, All the Colours of the Dark is not going to change your mind, but unlike The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – which is absolutely a solid example of Italian Stabby Cinema, and by no means in the most basic technical terms a bad film by the standards of its era and genre, with really great music, and if you like giallo movies you should a hundred percent look it up – All the Colours of the Dark has an empathy for its subject. It feels like this is what it is like. Having seen The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, I'm more or less convinced that this is an accident.
You could argue that empathy supersedes more or less everything, including the plot, in Francesco Barilli's 1974 masterpiece, The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It surprised me to find out that several films of the same name exist – it's the title of a novel by Gaston Leroux, which has been filmed more than once. Barilli's film has no relationship whatsoever to the Leroux story apart from the title. It concerns the experience of Silvia (Mimsy Farmer), a career-oriented research chemist who lives alone in a luxurious apartment in what appears to be Rome. Right from the beginning, we get the vague impression that she's unhappy. Her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) is the sort of basic asshole who gives her a hard time for having a career. She keeps her neighbours, chief among them the kindly and harmlessly eccentric Signore Rossetti (Mario Scaccia), at arm's length.

Eventually we will piece together that when Silvia was nine years old, her father, a ship's captain, was lost at sea. Her mother took up with a brutish, abusive man who beat Sylvia when she stumbled upon them having sex. Her mother also died; Silvia does not initially recall the circumstances of this.

The first sign that things with Silvia are not quite right is barely five minutes into the film, in a scene where Silvia visits her mother's grave and seems visibly disturbed by the simple fact of being there, by the sound of birds in the trees.
Immediately afterwards, we see Silvia and Roberto have drinks with Roberto's colleague Andy (Jho Jenkins) and his family. Andy is from an unspecified part of Africa (notably none of the places where Italy actually had colonies), and we first see him intoning a dreadful, portentous sermon on the scourge of witchcraft on “Africa”, on the way that people there still, he says, believe in the occult power of a witch doctor's malice to such an extent that it kills them. Silvia is visibly disturbed by this conversation, freaked right out by it, and no one seems to notice.
Andy: In every corner of Africa, be it jungle, savannah, village, river, or even in the tallest skyscrapers of our newest cities, the certain fear rides the hot winds, a fear which has many names: black magic; witchcraft; superstition; rites; mysterious deaths; human sacrifices.
Roberto: Not only in Africa, Andy. Even in Europe. It's not so well known, of course, but it goes on, you know.
Silvia: But those people aren't normal.
Andy: In our country, there are still certain cults which conduct human sacrifices. The victims are unaware that they have been chosen for these mysterious purposes, but when the time comes they are either killed or driven mad, by means of potions and secret rites. It is a kind of challenge thrown to the face of the powers of evil. Such practices, of course, take time and patience. They are like a test of man's mental strength over his weaknesses. [He laughs] Did I frighten you? I was only joking. You mustn't believe a word of what I said. We don't do such things anymore.
In simple and literal terms, this is a programmatic statement: we will see Silvia driven mad and then driven to her death by what appears for all intents and purposes a witch-cult. For these things do not only happen in Africa. It's the simplest explanation of what happens in the film, or the most literal anyway.

Andy is of course a crude stereotype, the African with the Veneer of Civilisation. He has little more to say in the film after his first dialogue, but he is omnipresent from here on in, silent and smiling, and definitely Up To Something. He is almost in his way a representation of Silvia's fear, fear of being haunted. It's a racist stereotype, of course, and while I suppose, as we'll see, that you could spin a large part (if not all) of this movie as a set of metaphors and similes for Silvia's psychological disintegration, and that therefore the increasingly sinister nature of Andy's appearances as the film develops are due to Silvia's own racist fear of the intimidating black man, it still goes into the category of showing racism by doing racism, and you still can't excuse it, really.
Aside from the sinister, quiet omnipresence of her boyfriend's chum, Silvia begins to be haunted in other ways. She sees visions of her dead mother applying perfume, in a mirror. She sees a vase like the one that was in her mother's bedroom in a shop window, but when she goes to buy it, she is told it was never there. At a s̩ance held in her apartment block, the blind psychic Orchidea (Nike Arrighi) tells Silvia things she does not wish to hear. Her only reliable friend, Francesca (Donna Jordan) is there, and then she very much isn't, dying offscreen for no apparent reason. Someone Рwe don't find out who Рsends Silvia poor dead Francesca's ashes in an elaborately wrapped and beribboned gift box, a sort of oblique accusation, maybe. When Sylvia is not present, everyone she meets Рeveryone, right down to the woman who doesn't have the vase in her shop Рassembles in a deserted factory building, and they all dress in blue boiler suits, and perform some sort of ritual.

Is all this in Sylvia's imagination? Is it a metaphor for the way in which she is being screwed over by the whole world at large? Does it matter that the conspiracy of the human race – and by its breadth, it is the whole human race – to destroy Sylvia is literal or not?
Sylvia herself begins to regress. She cuts her finger on a faulty tennis racquet, of all things, and withdraws in terror from Andy (because of course it's Andy) when he tries to draw the blood from the wound, repeating, “Sylvia's hurt herself,” while the spectre of a little girl in a white dress waits in the middle distance. The little girl (Daniela Barnes) turns up at her door. Sylvia doesn't recognise her, and tries to drive her away, but she cannot, because the girl is a phantom of her younger self. She is being haunted by her inner child.

Thanks to her childish urges, Silvia puts herself in the path of her mother's abusive former lover (Orazio Orlando) once more. He confronts her in the ruin of her childhood home and may or may not rape her. I mean, there's a rape scene, one that ends with Sylvia fatally and bloodily turning the tables with a brick to the head, but whether it actually happens, that's another question. When she goes back, the body is gone. We see her murder the other men in her life, and then we see them, walking, in the old warehouse, in the boiler suits, in the crowd of people here to drive Silvia mad.

It works, however you conceive it; Sylvia responds to setbacks with explicitly childish tantrums, and behaves according to a sort of broken whimsy, and when she lashes out, she lashes out like a little girl. And, having worn white throughout the film, at the end, when her childhood trauma overwhelms her very self, she dons a black dress like her mother’s.

I don't think I've seen a movie from the era that so understands what a haunting really is, and how and why we are haunted. Derrida would have had a field day with this film. What seems like a film full of almost random unconnected occurrences is nothing of the sort, as every single thing – real or imaginary – is here for the purpose of furthering the inexorable progress of Silvia's psychological collapse and driving her to her destruction.

It does not matter if what happens to Silvia in the film is real or imaginary.

Part of the reason the stuff we see happening to Silvia isn't literally true is obviously because it's a film and nothing happening in any film (and I'm tempted to say, even a documentary here) is literally true. But when we see a warehouse full of people who have no business at all being there – including people we've seen bloodily murdered not ten minutes ago – with the corpse of the just-dead heroine, who proceed to cut her open and feast, one by one, on her raw guts, this is not really something that can be explained in terms of a mechanistic “plot”, nor is it possible now that Silvia is dead to explain it as a figment of her imagination. No. It's a visceral (pun intended) simile for what the world, hostile and controlling and lethal, has done to this woman. In a sense, everyone in the film is in a cult dedicated to driving Silvia over the edge and then destroying her, and you can literally see it that way, or you could see it in a wider sense: that every stratum of society itself is part of a cult, so subtle we barely even recognise we're a part of it, dedicated to driving women mad.
This is not a perfect movie. It totally succumbs to the unexamined structural racism and misogyny of its time. But it wants to be on Silvia's side. It wants us to support her. It wants us to empathise with her.And I suppose that's why I fell so in love with it. I adore this film.

Despite being quite racist and sexist in the way it uncritically recycles genre tropes, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a deeply affecting movie, carried by Mimsy Farmer, who is Italian horror's undisputed Queen of Losing the Plot (so much so that although Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet comes towards the start of her run of Italian horror films, after the fact her very presence in that film has become a spoiler). Although a story of psychological disintegration and the horror of a self haunted and then finally annihilated by unresolved trauma, The Perfume of the Lady in Black has a melancholy beauty to it, helped in great part by the broken-music-box score by Nicola Piovani that floats delicately above the action of the film from start to end.

It's worth seeing. It's a haunting movie and a haunted one.

My theory is that folk horror becomes a Concrete Thing when we become, as a culture, receptive to the feeling that we are haunted. The Italian equivalent, Orrore Popolare, exists, despite its differences, in a similar space. And it is still haunted, it is still in a state of trauma from the way that the prosaic and the uncanny intermingle, and we see that happen here, in the disintrgration of a woman from a bad case of unfinished emotional business.

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