Le foto proibite di una signora per bene
aka The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
aka Frauen bis zum Wahnsinn gequält
aka Días de angustia
aka Photo interdite d’une bourgeoise
Director: Luciano Ercoli
Starring: Dagmar Lassander, Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott, Pier Paolo Capponi, and Simón Andreu
Running time: 93 min
You must surrender your mind–and your body. Confirming my own ideas about the inner monologues of women (this is Bill speaking) Minou (Dagmar Lassander) bathes, dresses, paints her toenails, lounges, naps, drinks, pops pills, and obsessively stares at portraits while spending the whole time thinking about how to please, anger, manipulate and make love to Peter. That’s a capital P, sickos. Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is her new entrepreneur husband. He’s been away trying to do some hardcore, capitalistic entrepreneuring and she’s doing her best to pass the time until his return.
Taking a break from her internal Peter obsessing and kinda doped up and buzzing, she goes for a late evening walk on the beach. Alone, with no one to call to, she is first spied upon, then stalked by sinister thug on a motorbike (Simón Andreu). He terrorizes and bullies her, using a nightstick with a switchblade tip. He’s going to make her “beg for his kisses,” and then tells her, “No, I’m not going to use force with you.” Nevertheless, he pushes her to the ground and slowly cuts open her clothes. Rapey stuff and, perhaps, murder are imminent. Then he asks about Peter. Does she know what he’s been up to while he’s been away? He tells her that Peter is a fraud. That he’s a murderer. Then he tells her she’s free to go … for now, and leaves her lying there unharmed and mostly unmolested as he rides off. Shaken, she goes to a nearby bar, calls Peter to come for her, and sits and gets plastered with some bossy card players, but doesn’t call the cops because, “The police only make you fill out forms.” Uh …?
Peter is somewhat dismissive of the assault, since the sex killer didn’t really do anything to her, only held her down and threatened her with a knife and cut her clothes mostly off. Uh …? Besides, even if she had been raped, he informs her, he wouldn’t love her any less. Minou, not at all wondering how a sex maniac knew who she was and who her husband is, protects herself from further victimization by donning a curly blonde Femi Benussi wig and going disco dancing. At the club, she bumps into her good friend, the fabulously gorgeous and sexually adventurous Dominique (Nieves Navarro), a former lover of Peter’s (and current lover of peters–zing!), who tells her of the death–maybe suicide, maybe murder–of a man named Dubois. Dubois was a business associate of Peter’s to whom Peter owed quite a bit of money.
Minou reads about Dubois’ death in the paper–he mysteriously died of the bends, a condition that typically afflicts divers that surface too quickly–and she begins to think … something. She discusses her worries and the attack with Dominique, who would, “adore being violated.” Like Peter, Dominique is mostly dismissive of the assault. She’s way more interested in showing Minou her classy porn slideshows and photos and not-so-subtlety coming onto her. While sorting through the porno snaps, Minou finds a picture of the sex maniac from the beach. Having gotten over her fear of filling out forms, an inspector comes to Peter’s office to take a police report from him and Minou. After, Peter tells her about the new deep diving pressure gauge he’s trying to bring to market and she sees the pressure chamber where it’s tested, a room capable of simulating deep diving conditions.
That night, while alone, she receives a phone call from her attacker. He wants to meet with her. He plays her a recording of Peter apparently discussing the murder of Dubois. She must meet him or he’ll turn the tape over to the police. He does not want money. He cannot be bought. All he wants is Minou. Minou, Minou, Minou! Is Peter really a murderer? How is Dominique involved? Why is Minou a target? Will she willingly give herself to her blackmailer, mind, spirit, and body, to protect her husband? Is any of it even real or is it all in Minou’s tipsy, pill-munching head? Who cares? I just want to see more of her kick ass shoe-stealing, show-stealing, startle-inducing pet turtle. Man, he’s great!
Everyone has his price–even a maniac. Without many of the markers usually ascribed to the giallo, and with a dearth of blood and titties, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion has its share of detractors, those who might call it Giallo Lite–or even not a giallo at all. However Ercoli’s eye, Ernesto Gastaldi’s script, and a score by Ennio Morricone would suggest otherwise. Will they be enough? Does FPoaLAS have enough strengths to refute the deniers?
Fisty: Before I say anything, I have to get something off my chest. I FUCKING LOATHE DAGMAR LASSANDER’S CUNTING SPITCURLS. They really, really irritate me. When I see–or think about–them, my hands curl into fists and I have to resist the urge to reach into the screen and set them afire. Or yank them off. And I’ve only ever seen them on Dagmar, so I am now beginning to hate her for subjecting me to them. I also blame Ercoli and whomever was in charge of hair and make-up for giving them a pass. What fucking lunacy inspired those damn things?
Bill: Go easy on poor Dagmar. They aren’t that bad. Why do you hate the spitcurls? Why are you so passionate about hating them? Did spitcurls anally rape your mother while pouring sugar in your gas tank? Superman has one. He’s famous for it. Do you hate Superman, too? How can you hate Superman? Do you also hate rock and roll and apple pie? Are you now or have you ever been a part of a communist organization? I actually think they’re kind of cute, especially when her hair is pulled back or when she’s wearing that purple hat while she and Navarro’s characters are at lunch. The only time I take issue with them is when her hair is down and she still has them. Then, they make her hair look kind of messy, but not good messy, just … busy. Also, I hate Superman. I do not hate Dagmar (or her hair) or Navarro or FPoaLAS. (When I type that, it makes me think of Legolas fapping. I don’t hate that either. I’m not gay.)
Fisty: What the hell. I hate them because they’re hideous. And they’re ALWAYS THERE, regardless of hairstyle: up or down, formal or casual, whatever. Except for the disco scene when she dons her platinum blonde Femi Benussi wig–which I found ultra hot. Now I want a Seventies perm.
HOLY SHIT, that was just ridiculous, and I apologize; I came over all catty all of a sudden. Despite my spitcurl phobia, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion is actually one of my favorite gialli. There is so much to love about Ercoli’s wildly entertaining first giallo (among them being: stunning fashion and interior design, hilarious red herrings, gorgeous and sassy actresses–particularly Nieves Navarro–hilarity inducing lines, and so on), but what I find most striking is how essentially feminine a film it is. And no, not simply because the protagonist is a woman–come on, how common is that in gialli?–but because of how Ercoli makes Minou’s feminine concerns central to the film. Basically, Minou is your textbook Lady with the Problem that Has No Name. Lest we forget, this is 1970, and Betty Friedan had been spraying The Feminine Mystiqueall over EVERYTHING for the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it’d hit Europe. In Italy, there were rumblings of their own nascent women’s movement, which would soon explode into battles over divorce, abortion, and other social and political issues.
Ercoli doesn’t sully his giallo with a whole lot of overt politics or preaching, and you won’t even find a plot device with a political subtext a la What Have You Done to Solange? Instead he neatly turns the conventions of the popular cinema inside out, playing with depictions of women in more customary genre films–or is he playing with the way women are treated in 1970 Italy? The hysterical victim or target common to gialli (*cough*EDWIGE*cough*) isn’t unique to the genre, but sadly not an uncommon trope. (Though often used extravagantly there.) When Minou confesses her troubles to Peter and the police, they suggest that the entire things is simply a fabrication, a repressed fantasy or cry for attention. You women! Even Dominique’s first response on being told of the seaside assault is to quip, “I would have adored being violated!” Oh, misogyny, you so crazy!
Back to Minou, Ercoli’s Lady with the Problem that Has No Name: She’s a naif little homebody, educated simply to catch a husband and now all wrapped up in her devotion to her him and her role as wife. Yet the empty hours she must while away (though not in housework or childcare because after all, this IS a giallo) leave her wanting … more. Despite her love for Peter, Minou is neurotic and unhappy, self-medicating with ‘ludes and booze–which she’s quitting, she swears, right after this drink/pill–internalizing her anxieties, and seeking fulfillment (which she sees as Peter’s attention) in insipid little sexual adventures that are simply fabrications meant to inspire jealousy in Peter. (Are the cops and Dominique on to something here?) Minou is simply slathered in feminine mystique; the only thing she’s missing is children or at least a meditation on motherhood.
Bill: Why would she need children? She has a turtle! I love that turtle.
I totally get what you’re saying about FPoaLAS’s femininity. Maybe I’m reaching a bit, but I also see Navarro/Scott’s Dominique as a kind of embodiment of the porn fantasy woman. She is all about sex. She’s not just permissive, she’s practically predatory. This is a woman that will order a pizza just so she can jump on the delivery boy. She’s beautiful, freaky, likes taking and showing off naked pictures, down for some girl/girl, and she is up for some violation. She is supremely comfortable with her perviness and doesn’t have to sit around making up stories about non-existent love affairs. Dominique is so OTT sexual that, in one scene she uses the police as her personal escort service. And Minou, who is maybe not completely repressed, but is kind of naive and not as confident, knowing Peter was once a lover of Dominique’s and being just a normal woman (except, this being a movie normal is still sickeningly gorgeous), compares herself to the unreal ideal of Dominique. Trying to judge yourself against other normal standards of beauty and sexual adventurousness is hard enough on your ego, but when you’re judging yourself against a perpetually horned up Susan Scott with a massive collection of Copenhagen porno…? There is no way you’re not going to question your own looks and prowess. Or maybe it’s just standard inhibited versus uninhibited stuff and I’m looking at it from too modern a perspective?
Fisty: I don’t know that I get all that from Dominique. She’s definitely an active person as opposed to Minou’s more passive one, and thus walks around acting upon and externalizing everything Minou internalizes and suppresses. In Dominique, the seductive and worldly female type is amped up to eleven to a degree that would be laughable is Navarro’s insouciance didn’t carry it off delightfully. (Okay, it’s still often laughable, but knowingly so; we laugh along with Ercoli et alia instead of at them. This seems to be his MO.) And that’s essentially how Ercoli plays the entire film. The best red herring of all, the turtle jump scare, is one (glaring) example of how Ercoli toys with the audience’s expectations. The title is another, a joke based on the Academy Award-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion–a satiric crime drama that may have influenced Ercoli elsewhere, I do not know. Has anyone seen it?–and of course both titles recall poor Pompeia: Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. Much as Minou is, until she becomes embroiled in suspicious circumstances and realizes that all women are under suspicion to men at all times. And oh my god, how not lurid is the movie, with that title? Oh, Ercoli!
Bill: So not lurid! That title makes you expect something really saucy, but compared to a lot of other gialli, it’s pretty tame. The majority of the nudity in the movie is in the form of photos of Dominique which, by the way, I would totally sell my soul to own. What a collectible those would make. And most of the “love-making” scenes are kind of boring and unsexy, restrained. The only scenes (that don’t involve a naked or flirtatious Dominique) that really get hott (with a double T) and give the movie some naughty appeal are (go ahead and call me a creep!) the scenes of The Blackmailer attacking Minou or coercing her into getting freaky with threats. Those are the scenes that are shot with a real lover’s eye. When he has Minou pinned down on the beach, slowing cutting the strings on her dress, it seemed more like foreplay than an assault. And when Minou decides she’s going to give in to his demands, man, she really goes all in. It’s some straight up 50 Shades of Grey shit, but actually good not lame, and Minou never once mentions her inner goddess or says, “Holy crap.”
It’s not very bloody either. The Blackmailer isn’t particularly violent until much later in the film and the body count in the movie is low, at only three. One of those deaths, the first, doesn’t occur onscreen. The character that dies never even appears onscreen. You’re not even certain it’s a murder at all.
Fisty: Yeah, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, which I really enjoy. You might think you’ve got the scenario figured out, but then along comes another red herring to throw a monkey wrench into the thick of it, mixing metaphors and motives like some kind of mixy-matchy thing. One of my favorite ambiguous scenes is one where at a dinner party, Minou flashes back to scenes of sex–or is it lovemaking?–for at first it is unclear with whom she is having the sex. Ercoli layers the scene in such a way as to suggest a great deal about Minou and her repression, as well as that around her.
The bit of sex that we see are mostly suggested–or even demonstrated secondhand (or is it third when a character watched slideshows of photographs of another’s character’s sex life, and then we watch that?). The violence is largely the same; there are no on-screen deaths until the climax. The exclusion of obvious scene of sex and violence has led to allegations that FPoaLAS is not really a giallo, but rather a murder mystery, which is just silly. Yes, there are certain tropes missing or toned down but if we’ve seen nothing else, it’s that few gialli (outside of perhaps some of the most derivative types), particularly the more noteworthy ones, hit every single marker. The best (I say) play with audience expectations and hallmarks of the genre–and again, we cannot underestimate the fluidity between genres. More importantly, FPoaLAS was released in November of 1970, a mere nine months after Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Nine months, hmmm?) Though Bird would become the principal map for gialli, these transitions do take a little time, even in the fast-moving world of Italian movie production circa 1970. Before Bird, it was hardly set in stone that a giallo must linger over elaborate, bloody kills, or be concerned with psychosexual problems, i.e. that the giallo in essence was that kind of violent erotic thriller.
FPoaLAS channels the claustrophobic paranoia of earlier efforts like Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Romolo Guerriri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah. Like the latter, and also like Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, Ercoli’s use of sex is less than overt, if not exactly subtle. That it doesn’t use the iconography of Blood and Black Lace should not matter, since at this point all the threads that would make up a later understanding of giallo had not yet come together. More than anything else, it resemble’s Umberto Lenzi’s loose “trilogy” of sexy thrillers–Orgasmo, So Sweet … So Perverse, and Paranoia–both in style and substance: the kinky eroticism, the jet-set cocktail crowd, the motive, and the amorality of those in question. But seemingly any giallo that doesn’t closely follow the post-Argento style is considered unusual or questionable, though they might simply hearken back to the earlier style. So it really doesn’t matter whether there is a black-gloved killer and their POV shots, or J&B, or a priest to pin it on. FPoaLAS IS a giallo, and a damn fine one at that. It’s also damn fine looking, like a series of postcards from Jacqueline Susann’s world, right down to glugging liquor and dolls in the bath.
Bill: Mostly, I just like blood and titties–blood, blood, titties, titties, blood and titties–so I tend to prefer the post-Bird, Argento-influenced films. I need constant stimulation or I get bored. Lucky, despite the dearth of bbttb&t in FapKoalas, there’s still plenty for me to enjoy. For instance: The Turtle. This flick has the only jump scare turtle I think I have ever seen on film. No yowling cats jumping out of closets for Ercoli. He uses a turtle with a shoe fetish instead. It’s not even a one off thing, either. It’s established much earlier in the film that Minou has a turtle and we’re shown the kinds of things her turtle likes to do, so it makes sense when it’s used it to freak you out later. Yes, I’m rambling about how much I enjoyed a pet turtle with maybe three scenes in the movie, but I can’t help it. I like turtles. I also like the funky interior design all through the movie.
I love those fantastic 60’s/70’s apartments. The space age pad Minou is in at the beginning of the movie is amazing! It’s all smooth white curves and indirect lighting. Shelving, walls, furniture, all connected, flowing together, seemingly all one connected piece with slanting log rafters for a ceiling, shag carpet, and creepy mannequin heads mounted on the walls as art. It’s probably my favorite locale in the movie, though The Blackmailer’s apartment is easily the second. That place is insane, with creepy hands sticking out at odd angles, heavy red drapes, skylight, weird bamboo screens hanging everywhere, and masked pinned to the stairs with stakes through its eyes. It’s like a bizarre, neo-savage, surrealist, Night Gallery version of an African tribal theme. Dominique’s place is very similar to that first apartment where we see Minou. Minou and Peter’s house is gorgeous. I think Peter’s work office is the only setting that disappoints.
Fisty: Well, his IS the dull masculine world of business. And it could be that his office is a (relatively) sterile environment because it’s outside Minou’s concerns. Now, their home is a cozily stylish pad, all light and bright and chock full o’ the most benignly outré bibelots. The juxtaposition of their effulgent and well-ordered nest with The Blackmailer’s dark and sinister den of debauchery is highly dramatic, but it works; the dramatic contrast is an effective way to telegraph the repression inherent mannered world Minou usually inhabits. Note how Ercoli uses light and shadow: Minou’s world is so artificially bright as to have none, while that of The Blackmailer is positively steeped in shadow. In his introductory scene, before he starts the seaside chase, he turns off the headlight shining on Minou, chasing her into the darkness he negotiates without hesitation. Symbolism! And of course, these exaggerated set designs lend that fantastic giallo style to which we are all accustomed.
The main players are equally decorative. Dagmar Lassender is lovely–spitcurls and all–and Nieves Navarro is stunning in the more playful role of Dominique. The two parade through the film in an ever increasing assortment of extravagant ensembles, from Minou’s housewifely minidress and disco pantsuit to Dominique’s sideless evening gown and Muppet-collared coat. (I used to have that coat, but lavender. I am not ashamed to admit it.) Plus, Minou is never once not wearing turquoise eyeshadow. It’s amazing. The gentlemen are pretty groovy themselves; I was particularly taken with Peter’s velvet blazer. Pier Paolo Capponi himself is not too exciting, though his bland smarminess is perfect for his ambiguous role as a possibly villainous husband. However, Simon Andreu is saturninely handsome as The Blackmailer, and does a wonderful turn in making him both seductive and frightening.
Bill: I thought Andreu was kind of ugly. COULD WE BE ANY MORE DIFFERENT? (Fisty: Ugly hot!) But you’re right about him being frightening. The Blackmailer is sadistic and psychotic and a damn tricky bastard. That one move he pulls … I don’t want to say exactly what it is and spoil it, but I’ll say that it will give the wiggins to anyone like me that worries about having their feet grabbed as they come up the basement stairs or thinks about the hand coming from under the bed whenever their feet are uncovered. And how awesome is his weapon of choice? It’s not long enough to be a cane, definitely more baton-like, highly polished, a handsome orange wood color, with a small hidden switchblade in the tip. It’s definitely not your typical cinematic murder tool. I want one. The Blackmailer is totally a stalker with character. I keep thinking about how awesome a giallo crossover movie would’ve been, with Andreu’s Blackmailer and Antoine St. John’s Killer, from The Killer Must Kill Again, stalking the same victims. If we can get Django, Sartana, and Trinity crossover movies, then why not?
I got carried away on a weird tangent there for a moment. I’m sorry. But I did bring up The Killer Must Kill Again and I guess I can use that to segue into another thing I liked about FPoaLAS. I’m sure you remember all of my bitching about the slow middle of TKMKA (also an unconventional giallo). I don’t have any of those same complaints about Fotos. It never has a chance to feel slow or get boring. It’s paced well, regularly showing you a new twist or wrinkle to keep you guessing and questioning things. Whenever you think you have it figured, you get a school of red herrings nibbling at your face like mutated piranha. Actually sensible red herrings, too, not the out of nowhere Leader-of-a-Satanic-Sex-Cult, Murderous-Orangutan-That-Looks-Like-a-Burn-Victim-Gorilla, or Secret-Sex-Killer-That-Happens-to-Live-Next-Door varieties. It’s a well constructed mystery, tricky and unusual enough to avoid being too linear or predictable, but not totally bizarre or nonsensical like a French Sex Murders.
Fisty: Fotos works as a tidy little mystery–almost TOO tidy. Dun dun DUN! It does wrap up very quickly, but I found the plotholes pretty small. Nothing you could drive a truck through. The motive and method are pretty traditional for thrillers, hearkening back to some noir plotlines. There’s a definite Woolrichian feel to Ercoli’s work, perhaps more so in Death Walks at Midnight, but I wouldn’t say Fotos is very far from it–the dilemma of I Married a Dead Man’s finale and that of various short stories is very similar to Minou’s first problem with The Blackmailer. Minou, of course, is The Woman in Peril (Above Suspicion), and Dominique gets to play femme fatale, a role I’m sure she’d relish. It’s a fun connexion to ponder. Maybe another time, because we’ve got pills to pop and cocktails to swill.
Speaking of cocktails, these folks like to party! I think someone is drinking in virtually every scene. I’m particularly fond of the scene just following The Blackmailer’s initial appearance, where Minou goes to some seedy bar, quaffs two brandies, then hangs out with some blue-collar types, guzzling Carlsberg beer till Peter arrives. It’s so bizarre.
Bill: There is so much alcoholism in FPoaLAS! It starts with Minou saying she won’t drink, then drinking. Then she’s attacked and goes to the bar. Her husband takes her home where they drink. She goes dancing and everyone drinks. Later she meets with a friend and they drink and then look at porn. Every time any character meets up with another, including, at least once, the cops, they say, “Lets have a drink!” Bottles of booze are prominent in several scenes. At one point, Minou wakes up screaming, freaked out, makes Peter check around, and in the middle of the night, after just waking up, he says, “Well, since we’re up, we might as well have a drink,” and they start swilling booze. I picture them getting up to pee in the middle of the night and saying, “Well, since I’m on my feet, I might as well get plastered.” I think The Blackmailer is the only person that isn’t at least tipsy through the entire movie. Even the turtle seems a bit sluggish and unsteady at times.
Why on Earth should I love you less because of a sex fiend? Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion is essential for any fan of the genre, though it boasts little blood or sex. But Luciano Ercoli’s debut giallo is hardly lacking, as a strong cast, inimitable style, and all the bons mots (and eau de vie!) one could hope for, making for some highly diverting entertainment. Undoubtedly a giallo of the restrained variety, it is still strongly suggestive of the sexuality and cruelty that would later dominate the genre. Plus, a turtle. All in all, it’s a kitschy, kinky little thriller that understands a woman’s needs.