Monday 11 October 2021

Dark Eyes Retrovision #27 - The Ape Woman aka La Donna Scimia (Italy 1964: Dir Marco Ferreri)

Warning: this review contains spoilers. But come on, it's a 57 year old movie!

Not, as you might expect, a Monogram quickie from the 1940s, this early film from Marco Ferreri (probably best known for his 1973 outing La Grande Bouffe) is an extraordinary one, not least that it's a movie with two endings; of which more later.

Antonio (Ugo Tognazzi) is a huckster; when we first meet him he's presenting a slide show in a nunnery on the subject of his 'travels' in Africa to religiously reform the natives, but when he takes a break from the presentation he finds, cowering out of sight in the kitchens, a woman who refuses to show her face to him. She is Maria (Annie Girardot, then one of France's most respected actresses) who has a condition wherein her face and body are covered in hair (inspired by the true story of Julia Pastrana, a 19th-century Mexican woman with hypertrichosis). Antonio, sensing the exploitation possibilities of Maria's condition, woos her and then shows her off to paying punters as a wild woman from the jungle (he creates an African set in his courtyard, including a cage, for verisimilitude). 

Understandably Maria's lot is not a happy one. Presumably for contractual purposes Antonio marries her, but even treats their wedding ceremony as an opportunity for publicity, parading his wife on the backstreets of Naples, and forcing her to sing to complete the mobile freak show. In return Antonio initially refuses to sleep with Maria but he too is wooed by her, the latter also insistent that her husband fulfills his part of the contract.

Maria further turns the tables on her exploiter/husband by agreeing to travel to Paris and take part in successful striptease shows; the act is a clever restaging of Antonio's African setup back in Naples, with Maria now free from her cage and, at the show's climax, 'killing' Antonio who plays the part of the white hunter. It's only when Maria discovers that she is pregnant that Antonio realises his gravy train is about to grind to a halt; and looks for a possible solution.

And it's here that The Ape Woman becomes interesting. In Ferreri's original, the story plays out dismally; mother and baby both die, and Antonio, seeking to maintain his livelihood, buys back their bodies to display to paying punters.

But producer Carlo Ponti, hoping to enter the film at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, required the director to shoot a happier endiing. Festival audiences saw a version of The Ape Woman where both Maria and her baby (who is born hairless) survive childbirth, with the doctors taking the decision to treat Maria's condition at the same time so that she loses her hair. Antonio, realising that his wife can no longer make a living as an ape woman, resolves to take a job at the docks, the man now rightfully becoming the breadwinner and happily married husband.

Viewing The Ape Woman today, it's tempting to see the film as a critique of the patriarchy (few men emerge from this movie with any dignity) and the subjugation of women. But while Ferreri has since been quoted as claiming that "my film expresses my anger towards this society" he's also made an almost Shakespearean tragicomedy which examines concepts of love, beauty and the human spirit in surprising ways. It remains an unsettling film to watch even if shot through with warmth and pathos (similarly achieved in Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks and David Lynch's The Elephant Man from 1980), with powerful and believable performances by Tognazzi and in particular Girardot.

CultFilms presentation of The Ape Woman, released on Blu Ray and Digital from 11 October, includes both the director's and Ponti's required endings, plus an exclusive 90-minute documentary on Marco Ferreri featuring Gerard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret, Christopher Lambert and Ornella Muti.

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