A man, who fears the growing self-sufficiency of women, spends a weekend going from fantasy to reality when he spontaneously abducts a woman and subjects her to submissive games for pleasure before killing her to showcase male dominance. Or, well, that’s the initial plan, but there’s more than meets the eye in Piero Schivazappa’s The Laughing Woman (also known as Femina Ridens and The Frightened Woman). The film continuously presents various oppositions (including active/passive, master/slave, aggressor/victim) but the more the film progresses, the blurrier the opposing roles become.
Mary (Dagmar Lassander) first meets wealthy philanthropist Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) when she, while writing about male sterilisation, requires more research material. The innocent request quickly sparks a heated debate, as Mary is positive towards sterilisation since she believes that women shouldn’t alone bear the responsibility when it comes to taking precautions. Unlike Mary, Sayer believes that the birth control pill is harmless (an interesting statement since he has never taken it himself), and he equals the monstrous barbarity of sterilisation with “permanent incapacity”. When Mary arrives to pick up additional material at Sayer’s place, it doesn’t take long until she’s drugged and transported to a secluded residence. In the house, used weekly for his endeavours to dominate women, there’s always a button to push, doors to slide open and two-way mirrors to use for his voyeuristic pleasure.
To Sayer, a woman’s suffering is pleasurable and the various acts of degradation Mary go through ranges from different levels of peculiarity – ranging from forcing her to watch as he eats a baguette, cutting off her hair and showing a slideshow of previous victims as their recorded screams are heard to forcing her to play the organ as he touches her body as well as forcing her to have sex with a replica doll of himself. At one point Sayer sprays Mary with water as punishment and takes photographs of her. When she eventually collapses of exhaustion, Sayer photographs himself by using a timer, as he’s triumphantly standing over Mary’s body with his hands on his hips, a sly smile and one of his feet on top of her body. It’s a showcase of the stronger gender, a notion that the battle of the sexes has already been won and it was barely a battle worth having.
Mary seems to be alternating between begging Sayer to release her and almost demanding him to kill her, almost as if she’s teasing him because she’s so confident that he can’t go through with it. Mary is more cunning than she first appears and even when she’s threatened, there’s always some level of control in her eyes like she knows something Sayer (and the audience) doesn’t. The Laughing Woman features no male white knight saviour, but there’s no damsel in distress either. While Mary’s cunningness is evident throughout the film, it’s highlighted during a dancing sequence where she’s only wearing some gauze, fully knowing that Sayer is secretly watching her. Her revealing clothing puts her body on display as she moves sensually to a song filled with breathy female vocals and while it looks like she’s drinking alcohol, unlike Sayer we see that she’s emptying her glass and only pretends. Fully aware of her every movement, she succeeds in luring Sayer out of his hidden room and through her performance she shifts the balance of power.
During Mary’s dance, there’s a wall behind her that can be argued to display colourful teeth motifs. These motifs can be associated with vagina dentata, and therefore referring to the film’s opening where we see men standing in line, waiting to go inside a sculpture. The creation, a reproduction of the 1966 sculpture “Hon – en katedral” by Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt, presents a woman lying on her back with legs wide apart. While the original work revealed a normal door-sized entry in the location of the woman’s vagina, the reproduction features a vagina dentata with sharp teeth. Besides The Laughing Woman’s eye-popping production design and timeless score by Stelvio Cipriani, this not-so-subtle metaphor might be the film’s most memorable creation.
While vagina dentata is a concept that has been used by itself, it can also be put in relation to castration anxiety, the fear of emasculation in both a literal and metaphorical sense. This aligns with Sayer, who fears that he’s about to become insignificant as he’s losing his virility and dominance. With its abstract curvaceous shape and vibrant colours, the sculpture is a statement that symbolises everything Sayer fears. As men line up to walk into the sculpture’s entry, they’re walking into an abyss from which they’ll never return alive. At the film’s pivotal climax, we see Sayer stepping inside only to later emerge as a skeleton.
When Mary orchestrates so it appears that she overdosed on pills, Sayer is desperate to awaken her. His distressed behaviour reveals that he has such a strong desire for control that he can’t bear the thought of her dying on her terms rather than his. The incident also brings up other feelings, as Sayer in a moment of honesty admits that he has never killed anyone and that his photographs and recording were staged with professionals. He candidly talks about spontaneously abducting Mary after his planned appointment fell through, and how exciting it felt. “I could finally make my obsession come true. To kill a woman for real.” However, he couldn’t do it. It’s a peculiar scene, as the things confessed are things that should make the other one run in the opposite direction, but instead, it’s presented as a vulnerable moment.
Besides that moment, there’s another similarly peculiar scene taking place when Mary expresses an interest in trying to help Sayer overcome his sadistic behaviour towards women. As Mary talks about how he needs to have faith in his virility, Sayer sits with his legs crossed and a cylinder-shaped pillow acting as a phallic symbol between his legs. When she asks him to imagine “the beauty of lovemaking at liberty” he starts leaning the top of the pillow on his head, a metaphor for his penis and mind taking a moment to contemplate if what she’s saying is worth the risk. Sayer’s misogynistic thoughts started when he was a child and saw a female scorpion eating the male after mating, which resulted in him being convinced that all women act accordingly. He blames the evil of women to the root of his misery and by dominating them, he tries to take control of the threat to his virility. Mary, an intelligent and opinionated woman, here acts as a stand-in for the gender Sayer fears more than anything.
Whereas the premise of The Laughing Woman is a tricky balancing act, it’s nowhere near as exploitative as it might initially sound. The most terrifying element of the film isn’t something particularly graphic or exploitative, but instead the constant threat that’s lingering in the air, as Mary is never alone nor safe in the house as long as Sayer is alive. This ties in with the double bed that’s divided in half by a moving wall, which he sometimes removes to reveal that he has been beside all along during a moment of presumed privacy. The threat of Sayer is always lurking around, and Mary – as well as women in real life – never knows when the overhanging threat of men will become a real one. Instead Mary, and women, always have to presume someone is watching, praying that they’re either lucky or ready when terror strikes.
While things have changed since the late 1960s, they haven’t changed enough which The Laughing Woman is evidence of. People love changes when they align with beliefs they’re already agreeing with, but when changes result in people being called out on for instance their privilege and behaviour it usually isn’t as fun, which Sayer represents. If Schivazappa has a specific message with the film, it’s certainly tricky to unravel it from all other interpretations that are suggested. Released in 1969, is the film a reaction to women’s growing independence? Is it a warning about what will happen when women gain “too much” independence? Or does it poke fun at these ideas as it celebrates a woman who destroys the man at his own game?
While it right from the start feels like the film provides two sides for viewers to choose from, there’s an absurd third act that might create some ambivalent feelings. In many films depicting submissive women enduring pain before taking revenge, the portrayal of the violence is often gruesome as it’s an easy way to get viewers to quickly both reject the attackers and cheer for the victim. Even though Mary goes through things that are violating as well as being surrounded by a constant threat of violence, there are also moments in-between these acts that disturb our minds as we’re trying to figure out the direction of the film. When the third act arrives, it feels so out of place since Mary isn’t begging for her life anymore but she isn’t openly executing her revenge either. Therefore, it creates ambivalent reactions as the film goes against what we’re used to seeing, namely a straightforward portrayal of revenge.
As Mary and Sayer take a quick trip, everything is presented in a lovey-dovey way, as if we’re watching a summer romance unfold. However, as with everything else in The Laughing Woman, nothing is as it seems. During the trip, Sayer is seemingly chasing Mary, this time out of longing rather than of a wish to inflict pain. By contrast, it all seems like a game to Mary, who is now the embodiment of sexual pleasure to Sayer. She’s the bearer of the promise of sex, but it’s a promise of pleasure that’s constantly put on pause. Every time he thinks the promise is going to be fulfilled, Mary is interrupting it and if Mary isn’t the one interrupting, it’s someone else. He seems annoyed by it, and there’s almost the impression that if the promise isn’t fulfilled soon, he might explode.
The final showdown, resembling a duel from a Spaghetti Western in the way it’s edited and scored, takes place in a swimming pool. Mary is already in the water but Sayer is hesitant. Here, it can be argued that Sayer knows that the possibility of death is there since he has always associated sexual acts with women to death, but it can also be argued that he doesn’t know that he’s about to die as he’s now blissfully naive about their relationship. No matter what the real reasoning is behind his decision, it doesn’t take long until he eventually ends up face down in the water as Mary spends some time observing his motionless body. Eventually, she reaches her hand up to her hair to reveal that she was wearing a wig all along. She throws the wig so it floats next to Sayer, which seems fitting since he had earlier said that he liked her better with short hair. He cut her hair to his liking, but Mary wears whatever she wants since she’s in control.
The final reveal in the film is presented when Mary is seen in the end flicking through a book with pictures of various men until she reaches an empty page and puts a picture of Sayer in it – signalling that she has gained another man to her collection. Even if she didn’t kill them all, they’ve at least lost all their power and control. The film ends as the camera lingers on the empty page beside Sayer, toying with the idea of who will be the next victim. However, when that page is filled, new ones will appear since it’s a never-ending fight. Before this final reveal, Sayer’s usual professional woman for the weekends asks Mary if she’s satisfied and when she starts complaining about losing one of her best customers, Mary reassures her that she’ll find as many like-minded men as Sayer as she wants to – which underlines that Mary will have just as many to stand up against.
While The Laughing Woman portrays a man who is punished for his behaviour, it also suggests that the battle of the sexes is never-ending. Although Mary walks away as the winner, there isn’t much real satisfaction to her win since even though she destroyed one man, another one will quickly take his place. I argue that Schivazappa suggests that both characters are imprisoned in their opposing positions, as well as in their joint stagnant position. The basis for this interpretation is symbolised by two shots where the framing makes it seem like Mary and Sayer are caught. The first one presents them behind a sculpture of glass and metal and from our perspective, the sculpture presents itself as their cage. In the other shot, the camera is positioned so that it appears to capture Mary and Sayer behind bars, once again signalling that they’re trapped.
While The Laughing Woman certainly is a product of its time, Mary’s complexity feels timeless. While we’ve seen many women in film turning a submissive and passive position into a dominating active one, Mary feels different. When we in the end see her in her lair, it’s portrayed as a tranquil place with its white interior, far away from the outside world filled with chaos and pain. Mary manages to do what Sayer can only fantasize about, but why does she succeed? Most likely she has spent her whole life being mistreated by men and seeing these men mistreat other women. In her book, the men come across as wealthy and in positions of power, and therefore they’ve probably gotten away way easier with their behaviour merely due to their positions. She doesn’t come across someone wanting to take over the world, instead, it feels like all she’s searching for is some peace of mind. However, as long as there are men who enjoy hurting, violating and humiliating women, it’s impossible to reach that state – and I can only agree.
by Rebecca Rosén
Rebecca Rosén (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.