The Frightened Woman might be the smartest, weirdest, most visually interesting Euro sexploitation movie I’ve seen yet. Not the oxymoron you might thing; I’ve seen some incredibly complex movies in the genre (and totally grieve for its demise. I think a lot about where the engaging, sexy, visually inventive exploitation films have gone), but very few are all about the masculine fear of the vagina like this one is. A radical feminist exploitation film? I’d say so.
A rich, handsome philanthropist likes to hire hookers for weekends of extreme S&M games. When his usual girl becomes unavailable, he kidnaps a journalist who works for his company and forces her into his games. She’s silenced (that first still!), humiliated and conquered (that second still!), has her hair chopped off, and forced to prostrate herself at his feet. When she tries to escape, she’s chased down by a car; when she tries to take violent revenge, it’s in the form of a prop knife left for just that reason, to humiliate her more. She’s completely unsure what his plans are for her, and tries to kill herself to gain some certainty. For some reason, this awakes the human inside this man – he saves her, admits the pictures of murdered woman were all fakes, and nurses her back to health.
After the suicide attempt, the film has an almost Kubrickian sense of symmetry. In one particularly clever sequence, Dr. Sayer takes care of Maria (the characters’ names aren’t particularly important, as they’re rarely used), rubbing her feet and ankles in precisely the same way he forced her to shortly before. They then take matching, symmetrical showers, Maria takes Sayer’s picture doing slightly embarrassing feats of strength, and they even have the same haircut. The way in which the action turns on a dime is surprising, but also particularly surreal, since the situation is the same, only reversed. After frolicking in a field, Sayer and Maria go to a castle/restaurant (??) where they almost make love on a duke’s bed, but are interrupted by a dwarf. I unfortunately couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
Finally, Sayer has a daydream (day nightmare, I suppose) that puts everything into perspective. He dreams about a giant pair of legs that fill a warehouse, with a dark hole between them. We never see any other part of this giant woman; Sayer has literally cut her off at the waist. He walks slowly toward the dark hole, and as he walks into it (and, in the film’s action, is psyching himself up to finally have sex with Maria, which he has been avoiding in favor of his weird games), the hole closes up behind him with toothy doors. The door reopens, and all that’s left is a skeleton. That’s right, this giant vagina literally eats him. This whole moment is very Jodorowsky and reminded me a lot of The Holy Mountain. Very rarely have I seen anything as clear-cut yet surreal and freaky about the masculine fear of female sexual power. Sayer pays women to be less than him because, in his heart of hearts, he is terrified that women actually have ultimate power, something he just can’t handle. Ironically enough, he’s proven right in the end, a weird little twist that doesn’t make sense if you think about it too much, but is radically feminist enough that I appreciated it greatly.
The only thing I knew about The Frightened Woman before seeing it was a few stills of the surreal, psychedelic imagery. That alone would have made the movie worth a watch. I wasn’t expecting much more than your run of the mill Euro-sploitation film of the time; what I got was almost a rape-revenge picture where the protagonist takes no-holds-barred revenge on a powerful (but ultimately weak!) man and the patriarchal system he represents. Near the end of the film, Maria says to another woman – I’m paraphrasing – that you can only take so much abuse from a man before you fight back, even if he is paying you. You got that right.