Sergio Martino’s 1971 picture The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is quite possibly my favorite giallo film. While my colleague Kat Ellinger started off 31 Days of Gialloween considering one of her favorites, a similar film by the same director made a year later called All the Colors of the Dark, I have always preferred Edwige Fenech as Julie Wardh more than Jane Harrison. Having written the book on Martino, Kat knows what she is talking about, but the whole business of favorites is something clearly subjective, which is often not even worth arguing about. Fenech spends a good deal of time in both films running around in a panic like some gothic heroine, but I prefer her as Mrs Wardh perhaps because she has a bit more composure. Things are slightly more restrained and nuanced. Both films are oneiric, with All the Colors of the Dark being the more paranoia-inducing of the two. The Strange Case of Mrs Wardh mixes flashbacks, fantasy, and dreams, although these things all essentially come from the same place.
The film opens in an appropriately sordid space, the camera in the back seat of a car driven by a man cruising for prostitutes. Soon enough, the straight razor and bright red blood are flying to the sound of an airplane overhead coming in for landing. Cut to the immortal Edwige Fenech arriving at the Vienna airport to meet her husband who is some kind of diplomat. What follows is a scene that defines Euro-cult cinema in my humble opinion. Julie Wardh sits in the back of a taxi cab pulled over by the police. When explaining that a woman was murdered just a half hour before in the area, the English-dubbed taxi driver replies in a generic German accent, “Was it sex fiend?” The cop answers affirmatively, and as the taxi drives on, our driver explains how he wishes the death penalty were reinstated, zealously bellowing, “Ja, the sex perverts would really get what they deserve!”
Everything about this exchange says so much about the genre and time period that The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh came from. The characters immediately assume that sex fiends hide around every corner, as if murder is a thing that cannot exist without sexuality. The dubbed English dialog track in this scene makes me smile every time. There are some audiences out there that don’t bother taking a film seriously as soon as they realize the language is dubbed, as if it is a cheapening of cinema. However, these lovingly trashy films are a perfect symptom of European economic and cultural prosperity of the time, something that many wish could strengthen again. It is fascinating to look at this kind of cinema as creating a vague, heterogeneous perspective of “Europe” looking inwardly at itself, as well as the US observing from afar, kind of like how All the Colors of the Dark takes place in “London.” The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh was an Italian-Spanish-Austrian co-production, and it is fantastic to imagine these performers and crew members converging on Vienna to make such a film that exists in a place all its own. So many gialli don’t even take place in Italy, but a place that is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The only passport you need to giallo-ville is a desire to be there, and it is always accepting new citizens. We are all Mrs Wardh.
But returning to her in the backseat of that taxi, as soon as the driver is through giving his opinion on capital punishment, Julie’s first fantasy mind map is projected for us. As rain pours down, she argues with a man–who we later learn is Jean–inside a car. As she attempts to run away, the two fall in the mud, and he strikes her a number of times before ripping her sweater and kissing her. This is a beautifully rendered, slow motion scene of fantasy violence that quickly moves on, giving us no explanation.
A few scenes from The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh have been imitated or paid homage in recent years, most memorably in Cattet and Forzani’s Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and Astron 6’s The Editor (2014). The Astron 6 recreation of the above-described scene is beautiful and hilarious, parodizing the absurdity found in some depictions of sadomasochistic violence. Yet, as my colleague Samm Deighan mentioned in her gialloween entry about The Sister of Ursula (1978), so much of the sexual violence in gialli is so absurd and surreal in and of themselves, it is hard to take them seriously as misogynistic attacks on women’s sexuality. It shouldn’t take a sophisticated amount of media literacy in viewers to understand that what they are watching is wild and unreal, in the same way that bodice-ripping romance novels are. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner, but more one that champions the value of reading and cinema-going as base entertainment. Getting back to the above point, it is great that Astron 6 decided to parodize The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, but the humor and self-reflexivity of the situation was already present in the original scene.
The scenes discussed so far only get us about as far as six or seven minutes into the film, so unfortunately I need to pick up the writing pace! Julie Wardh has no less than three love interests in this film: her boring-ass diplomat husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), George Hilton putting on the relentless smarm as the appropriately named George, and Jean (Ivan Rassimov) the haunting, blue-eyed dream sadist. Hilton and Rassimov return along with Fenech in All the Colors of the Dark, making the two films sometimes hard to differentiate when thinking back on them. I am not sure if most other viewers would agree with me, but as the film progresses, George’s pushy, narcissistic personality make me hope that Julie ends up with Jean. She is clearly and justifiably afraid of Jean, but at the same time the audience’s ability to see her deepest fantasies indicates that he also happens to be the one who arouses her desire the most. Quite often sadomasochistic desire in gialli doesn’t make sense, for the simple reason that it often does not make much sense in reality either. This is something that the genre hinges on, using the nonsensical themes as a reason to approach coherent narrative structures more casually.
About halfway through the picture all bets are off with the discovery of Jean’s dead body. But is he really dead? In a giallo like this, don’t count on it. It would be cruel to reveal the conclusion of this movie, aside from saying that it delivers. The mood of those cryptic love notes that he–or whoever–continues to leave with Julie creeps into Martino’s later work as well. One says, “Now I know you’re trying to get away from me–but your vice is like a locked room from the inside and only I have the key,” which of course motivated the title for Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). This makes for something of an informal trilogy in Martino’s ouvre, with a ravishing, short-haired Fenech returning in a supporting-role to the misanthropic leads played by Luigi Pistilli and Anita Strindberg. Another film worthy of fitting with Mrs Wardh and All the Colors as a trilogy is The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), directed by Giuliano Carnimeo, which also stars Edwige Fenech and George Hilton.
Of all Martino’s gialli, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is the best one to start out with. It is full of gothic anxiety, lurid fantasy, sex maniacs, voyeurism, passionate butt-squeezing, “blood fetishes,” cobbled-streets, gratuitous views, and so much more. As giallo is a genre literally named after the yellow-covered, mass market paperback mysteries sold in Italy, it makes sense that the films are full of romance, sex, violence, conflict and trauma. Yet these films can also be looked at in context to fine art of a supposedly higher caliber. The burlesque subject matter and bold, colorful, visual style has similarities with the paintings of Henri Toulouse Lautrec, while the frank yet fantastic sexuality can be analysed alongside work going as far back as Manet’s Olympia (1865). One era’s confrontational shock images become the next era’s high art, so who knows where history and criticism will take The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh.