Maddy: Good morning everyone!
Hope we’re excited about talking about the very strange, very interesting Femina Ridens.
How about we reply with initial impressions/things that peaked your interests?
I’ve got a few overarching questions that we may want to address (but if discussion goes in a different direction that’s cool too!)
How do we feel about the film as a feminist work? A few of us are very interested in eurotrash/genre films, which are very misogynistic, but often have something else that keeps us (well, me, and I’m assuming for the rest of you) coming back. This film in particular is considered as a feminist undermining of this kind of genre filmmaking. Does it work on that level? Do we buy that reading? If so/if not, why?
The set design/art direction is amazing. No questions there. Eurotrash is usually very showy in terms of location & design – what did we think of it in this case? Does it work with or against the narrative/ideologies of the film?
How do I get the theme song to be my ringtone?
Emily: First of all, this is one of those viewing experiences that makes me glad I am a women, if that makes sense–what I mean is, after watching the movie (and really enjoying it) I googled it and looked up some IMDB reviews, which inevitably were variations on “Dagmar Lassander gave me a boner hurhurhur” by film bros. God, what a boring and sad way to live your life, you know? That all you take away from this is your scopophilic alignment with Mr. Mueslix Box Illustration/I Desperately Need Some Toner. Watching it as a woman and a feminist, the payoff of the twist at the end was everything–after seeing these awful scenes of fetishistically photographed misogyny and abuse (which are only versions of things I’ve seen a thousand times), to have Lassander end up literally slaying and triumphantly yoga posing in her fortress of queer queendom was incredibly cathartic. That said, obviously the film was directed by a dude and obviously those scenes I talked about (which are in some senses revised/undercut by the ending) are still incredibly exploitative, violent, and difficult to watch, and (judging by the gross reviews I read) largely the reason many people still want to watch the film. So, for me, even while loving the movie, I remain upset by and conflicted about the objectification and gendered/sexualized violence. I’m also wondering to what extent we can see the movie’s feminism (if that’s a label we feel comfortable applying) or subversive elements as things that are realized by the female artists involved in it (eg. Lassander and her AMAZING FACE which mocks her ersatz captor through the whole film, Niki de Saint Phalle’s incredible statue/installation).
I’m interested to see what people have to say about how the set design works with or against the ideologies we see functioning. One thing that struck me about the sets (besides their beauty) was how even though we spend a ton of time in his gross basement torture compound, it’s incredibly difficult to, like, orient yourself in that space–it’s unclear how the different parts fit together.
Favourite look was the poodle hair/poodle purse combo on the character that frames the story, AND Lassander’s alien sunglasses during the “field trip” they take to the country.
(Also, just thinking more about my answer to the first question, I’m kind of questioning myself re: my feeling of catharsis…because that’s a feeling that depends on experiencing the film’s violence. Is it still a gross kind of pleasure to get out of everything? CONFLICTED.)
Maaike: I have to admit I was super tired when I watched the film, so these are really just my gut reactions.
I feel like the film works more on the level of trope reversal, and the kind of catharsis Emily described, than anything else. I mean, it would be cool if creepy rapists were more frequently taken out of circulation, but in the end, just like (as Emily mentioned) the male viewer gets what he wants out of this movie, the kidnapper also gets exactly what he wants out of Dagmar Lassander, even if he pays for it with his life. First he wants her to be his terrified victim, and gets it (it’s not real, but he never realises this); then he wants to have this cute mutual thing going with her, and gets it; finally, he conquers his self doubt through access to her body. It kills him, but it goes so fast he probably doesn’t even have time to regret his decision. It’s a pretty empty victory in the sense that nothing changes, there’s just one less creep out there because he had a heart attack and died. Considering that “kill all the creeps” is a message that I assume nobody actually takes away from this movie, it’s great as a cathartic upending of its genre, but i don’t know that it achieves much else.
Re: question two, I have to admit first of all that I have a lot of issues with the term Eurotrash. Most likely this is partially petulant Euro resentment on my part, but none of the ways I’ve seen it used mesh with each other at all to form any kind of coherent concept people can agree on, outside of Europeanness, and it annoys me because this makes it so inefficient as a descriptive term. Anyway, that aside, I was a bit more oriented on Lassander’s increasing mobility/confidence within the space than the space itself, so I’m not sure I can think of much to say on this point. I think the space is very much set up for voyeurism, and in a few cases explicitly violent voyeurism, as in the case of that metal wire screen that’s less wall- or cage-like than something that could actually hurt you. I can’t think of any ways that the space subverts the kidnapper’s desires, honestly. I feel like Lassander’s trajectory through it projects an increasing sense of ownership on her part, but I feel like that plays more into the problems I have with the film (as in, does this really subvert anything?) than into effecting a change within the space. Even after grayscale face man is dead, his dummy is still sitting there, still watching her from behind a partition, and she’s still essentially performing for it.
Favourite look? Dagmar’s awkward-date-day outfit obviously. Those shoes alone win it, and I love her with short hair. Also, those sunglasses make her look like Lindsay Lohan (Maddy, tell me I’m not alone here!)
There’s a few things up there that I’m not sure I worded correctly, but I’m not really sure how to rephrase them. Like, I don’t think a film needs to be somehow perfectly feminist in its conclusion or its story to be feminist, or needs to project one specific message or moral, which I think my wording probably implies above. I just don’t think this film really works as feminist on a fundamental level, not only because it consistently caters to the desires of male viewers who want to see women depicted a certain way, but also because ultimately, though he dies at the end, the man still gets exactly what he wants out of the woman, both in terms of how he relates to her and she to him, and in terms of his access to her body.
Emily: I definitely agree with you re: how much the film satisfies male desires and how gross that is, and I love the analogy you draw between Mr. Mueslix and the male viewer; like him, the male viewer doesn’t have to have their pleasure revised/revoked by the final 10 minutes of the film. As I was watching I was wondering about how much the film openly makes fun of him, though–to me he’s such a clearly ridiculous, impotent figure and I think that’s explicitly part of the film (e.g. him checking out his bald spot in the mirror, his pathetic performances of physical “virtuosity” in front of Lassander, his flaccid antics documented by her on camera on their outing); does that complicate things at all? Or is it something else that can be just as easily glazed over to get a glimpse of boobs?
Maaike: No, that’s a really good point. I feel like this is where my tiredness the other night is going to trip me up, because if I’m going to zone out it’s definitely going to happen when someone talks about their masculinity issues, so I probably missed a few things that happened there. You’re totally right that he is openly made fun of, though. His manly posturing is so absurd and pathetic, and it’s really shown up as such. I feel like this is potentially double-edged, though: on the one hand it could be making fun of the tropes of masculinity as such, as a grotesque performance by people who have issues. On the other hand, it could also be a way to cast out this particular man from “real” masculinity, which would then be characterised by natural dominance and a lack of the anxiety and self-doubt this dude is clearly dealing with. This would turn it into more of a male self-regulation thing, where it’s okay (or even a fitting punishment) for this guy to get killed because he wasn’t really one of the guys, anyway; real men wouldn’t lose a game on their home turf like that. I don’t really feel comfortable picking one over the other, though, because of all the dialogue I missed when I started becoming very bored with this man. I’d like to hear your (general you) thoughts on this, because I feel like other people can probably contribute more here than I can.
Maddy: Good points guys! I’m not crazy about the eurotrash moniker either, not only for its inherently dismissive implications. I guess I used it because it’s the usual term, but more strictly it would be giallo. I guess I feel like we’ve got too few words/terms, and therefore a lack of real thinking/understanding/interaction and that’s where the problem lies, which ties into your feelings Maaike.
The issue of the viewer/intention is really key for me. I was having a conversation with Andrew the other day about how I have no interest in talking about these kinds of films (exploitation? B art films from Europe in the 60s and 70s? horror in general) with a straight man. I don’t have any interest in the people these films are meant to titillate. But that’s often a big part of these films/sometimes the whole point of the film that I totally disregard (which is dumb, but is maybe a means for me to tolerate all the things that bother me so much). A lot of these kinds of films, and this film, is fucked up. And though there are certainly parts that undermine its message, that doesn’t mean the setup is okay by any means. Just because the villain is a mocked fool & gets killed in the end, that doesn’t mean women weren’t exploited earlier, and it doesn’t cancel out what happened initially.
This tension is what interests me the most about the film. Obviously if the exploitative (I’m just going to use that term though it isn’t perfect) parts weren’t included, this would be a Better Feminist Work. But what does it mean when something exploitative undermines itself, however poorly? As a work within a tradition of misogyny, why is it doing this? Is it a means of making it “okay” that the earlier exploitation happened, and is therefore insincere? Or is it trying to do something subversive in its own field?
I keep deleting this rambling paragraphs of what I think of feminism, and how it functions currently, which doesn’t really have a place here. Anyways, I feel like right now we’re at a moment where things need to be labelled feminist or derogatory, and those two are the only options. We’re all too smart for that, but that’s definitely a tension here. This is a film that is in, and takes up the form of exploitation of women. But it does undermine it. But does that make it feminist? And how does authorial intent/perception work here? I think Maaike & Emily are right to point out the issues of the dude bros who watch this film – because they’re the intended audience, let’s be honest. But this film, more than most of its kind, tries to be high art, but is still low brow. It is exploitative, but subverts itself. Because it works as an in-between work, I think it is subversive of a medium that is already supposed to be subversive, but not radical.
Maaike: I really like the points you brought up! I’ve noticed the feminist (good) vs. derogatory (bad, bye) divide recently too and it bugs me, too, though maybe my points above might read as fitting into that? I’m not sure.
This is more of an aside, but I think my focus on what the film actually does, as opposed to what the viewer can do with it, is probably informed by the way I totally failed to ground myself when I started watching Bollywood films. I was completely blown away by the amount of attention that was paid to women’s issues, the way female characters got to speak about their struggles and oppression, and so on. I took it at face value for a long time, before realising that (many of) these films are effectively set up to still finally silence and neutralise the subversive female elements (though the level of genuine subversion obviously differs from film to film). Oftentimes, women are allowed to speak so they will shut up when they’re done, or are allowed to speak in a way that will still allow for their eventual submission to the status quo. It’s a hypocrisy and a sliding scale that a lot of Indian viewers and people who write about the industry are totally aware of, and that I was straight up ignoring because I was so excited that women were speaking up in these films in a way I’d never seen elsewhere. That was an eye opener for me, and since then I’ve been very careful to not read my own desires or preferred ideas into films without also making sure I realise what the film itself is doing. I get carried away quite easily, so while I like ambiguity, I never feel I can get into that until I’ve started by thoroughly acknowledging the things that I’d rather were not in the film, but still are. I’m never really this adamant about it when the film in question is just one I can love while also disagreeing with it 100%, but when it comes to things like feminist subversion I really have to ground myself because I just want things to be great!
Maddy: I really appreciate you verbalizing the “just happy to see women so I didn’t realize the issues” because that’s something I still have to deal with! I had a rambly paragraph working around the same idea!
Dana: Yes, I am generally totally with you, Mad, on wanting to talk about these films most with the audience that the film seemingly ignores (see a perfect example in this poster for 1968’s Corruption). I think when something “exploitative” seems to undermine itself, for me at least, it’s often based in the strong female performance in the film. Dagmar Lassander is a total boss bitch, and makes something out of the film that I think a lesser actress might not have been able to. I don’t think that makes the film feminist, per se, but it certainly provides dimensions that a lot of lesser, more poorly authored films just aren’t able to.
What does everyone think of the title – “The Laughing Woman” (generally accepted English title) vs “The Frightened Woman” (alternate English title)? I think it’s kind of a little microcosm of all the issues of exploitation we’re talking about here.
Emily: Dana, I have been thinking a lot about the title. From my research (uh…google translate) it seems like the word “ridens” really only means laughing/mocking/ridiculing (unless there’s another connotation I’m missing because I don’t speak Italian), so it’s interesting that “The Frightened Woman” has become an alternate title. In a way I can see the logic, because calling it “The Laughing Woman” is kind of a spoiler, but really that “spoiler” is put forward with the title card of the movie (backed by an abstract grin on the vagina dentata statue/structure). Like you’re saying Dana, the title is really a version in miniature of the conflicts and ambiguities we’ve been exploring here: to call it “The Frightened Woman” speaks to the narrative that is subverted, in various ways (and with varying success depending on your perspective), by the film itself; “The Frightened Woman” is also obviously what constipated dudebro wants her to be (and what his fellow film-watching dudebros take pleasure in consuming). “The Laughing Woman” is what they are afraid of. Some other things I’ve been thinking about are the bodily aspects of both emotions: both twisting the face, both often coming unbidden as visceral experiences. And the idea of choosing laughter instead of fear (or alongside fear, or as part of fear) in the face of misogyny, exploitation, and abuse. And the fact that I laughed a lot at the end of the film as part of my enjoyment of how it upended what had come before.
Also, one more thought on “The Laughing Woman” as “spoiler”: for many viewers, knowing that the woman finally laughs, is not only frightened, could be something to hang on to during the film. Personally, I probably would have turned the movie off partway through (specifically, during either the slideshow of “dead” women or the first scene in the pool) if I didn’t think that there would be some kind of revenge or redress at the end, something I trusted would happen because I couldn’t see you guys selecting the film for us otherwise.