In the Folds of the Flesh is advertised as “the 1970 sickie that would make Freud himself scream in horror.” Apparently a sickie is a movie that is really sick, like how a talkie is a movie in which people talk. I have watched Sergio Bergonzelli’s film about four or five times now and can’t really pin down any specific psychoanalytic theory that legitimately explains the events (although the film leads us to believe that the title comes from a quote by Freud). Indeed, Freud would have been horrified that some filmmakers associated his name with such a convoluted B-movie. However, it is thoroughly enjoyable, but I still have trouble explaining the actual plot and resolution of the story. This film is an epitomizing example of the complete irrationality of giallo cinema, and how incoherence of plot becomes beneficial to the success of the work.
The film is set at a large villa in Italy, where Lucille (Eleonora Rossi Drago) lives with her son Colin (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) and Falesse (Pier Angeli), a young woman who might be related to them, although it is difficult to say. Uninvited visitors begin showing up at their place, one after the other. As murder and sexual hijinks ensue, the back-stories of the villa’s inhabitants are revealed in bizarre flashbacks and plot exposition that may not even be true. Meanwhile, the identity of a missing man named Andre comes back to haunt all of them. In the Folds has so many plot twists that it is impossible to stick with what is going on. After 88 minutes, the picture ends, making one want to watch it again, or just walk away, frustrated at just having wasted an hour and a half. I am going to summarize a list of important plot points and twists here, in order to find out if there is actually any logic to Bergonzelli’s odd contribution to the world of cinema. Please forgive the straightforward writing style, which is used for hopeful clarity.
We open with a shot of a man’s severed head on the ground, a woman with dark hair standing over it, a young boy to the left, a girl to the right. The opening sequence goes back and forth between cop cars pursuing a man on a motorcycle, and the dark haired woman who we soon find out to be Lucille, letting an unmanned boat out to sea. The motorcyclist, Pascal (Fernando Sancho), witnesses her burying a body on the grounds of her estate (while clothed in haute couture fashion typical of gialli, of course). A young boy watches from a window above as well. The police capture Pascal, the oafish fugitive as he flees on the premises.
Thirteen years later, a man named Michel arrives at the villa with his dog, claiming to be a friend of Lucille’s late brother (?) Andre. Note that Lucille does not look much older than she did in the earlier scene. Her now-grown son Colin lives at the estate, wearing ridiculous outfits including saturated green tunics and garish gold necklaces. Falesse, Andre’s now-grown daughter also lives there. Colin kills Michel’s dog after the pup finds the unmarked grave Lucille dug years previously. Falesse stabs Michel in the back, as she remembers kaleidoscopic trauma of molestation, defending herself with a sword. Indeed, a sword.
Next, a womanizer named Alex shows up, bright orange turtleneck and all. He lets himself in while Lucille and Colin are disintegrating Michel’s body in the basement. Alex immediately hits on Falesse, angering the jealous Colin. Falesse and Colin begin necking while dancing like fools, which seems confusing because they often act like siblings. Later, Alex and Falesse partake in some heavy petting until she attempts to stab him, which seems like a compulsive act for her. It turns out she is wearing a blonde wig that he rips off. In retaliation she decapitates him. In the aftermath, more flashbacks implying Falesse’s molestation by her father ensue.
This is followed by a random scene of an old man visiting a women’s sanitarium. There is no explanation for this until later.
What follows is an unnecessarily long portion of the movie showing the return of Pascal, the man arrested in the opening sequence. He takes the inhabitants of the villa hostage by gunpoint, revealing that he knows Lucille buried Andre’s body. He rapes Lucille and Valez after making them dig up the garden while in their pajamas. Eventually, Pascal is killed by cyanide poisoning as he splashes around in the tub, which triggers a salacious, nazisploitation flashback revealing that Lucille had survived a concentration camp during World War II. I wasn’t expecting that.
Once Lucille and company finally think they are done with unexpected visitors, the old man seen earlier in the random sanitarium scene arrives via speedboat—it is Andre (!?), although he looks completely different because of plastic surgery, altering his face entirely. He also changed his name to Derek in order to elude the police. Falesse becomes irate, insisting that she killed her father years ago. In flashback it is revealed that Falesse was actually molested by an assassin named Antoine, in her father’s bedroom—after the sex crime, Falesse chopped off her attacker’s head thinking it was her father. This explains her fetish for wanting to stab every man she is in bed with. Suddenly, we find out that Lucille had a daughter named Ester, who was killed in a car accident previously.
Andre/Derek insists on having Ester’s body exhumed, because he needs to see her decrepit bones for some reason. However, he refuses to believe that Ester is dead. He also refuses to believe that Falesse is Falesse, forcing Lucille to admit that the real Falesse was committed to an asylum—the sanitarium seen previously in that random scene.
Soon enough, the real Falesse is flown in with a nurse, in order for all the murderous, perverse activity to be resolved. She is a childish woman who refuses to be touched. Everything begins coming together (sort of), as the woman originally believed to be Falesse is, in fact Ester, Lucille’s daughter—rendering all of the sexual activity between her and Colin to be sibling incest.
It is dramatically revealed that the severed head seen in the first shot has been hidden inside a baggie in a potted plant for the past thirteen years, belonging to Antoine, the man who attempted to kill Andre and molested Falesse. In addition, it was actually Lucille who decapitated the man, an act that was distorted in the minds of everyone else present because of repressed trauma. I was not aware that transference of trauma was a thing that could happen in this way, but I have yet to exhaust the depths of psychoanalysis.
If all these twists weren’t enough, Derek/Andre plays sleuth and reveals that it was Lucille the whole time who convinced Antoine to kill Andre, causing all of the madness of that night and repression to follow. In her guilt mixed with concentration camp memories, she commits suicide by cyanide.
To wrap things up, it turns out that Derek had not been Andre the whole time, but actually a police inspector. He played the part of Andre in order for Falesse to overcome her trauma and be able to leave the sanitarium. Ester and Colin are taken off to jail for all of those murders they committed earlier on, leaving the real Falesse to live in the villa, fatherless, alone, and not particularly happy.
In review, we have false flashbacks, characters who take on the identities of others whether they realize it or not, transference of trauma, flashbacks to Nazi death camps, incest, rape, animal cruelty, and murder. Other things I forgot to mention, or that need more mentioning, are swirling psychedelic interludes, numerous kaleidoscopic shots, two beloved pet vultures, outrageous 1970’s fashion accessories, bad artwork adorning the walls, Etruscan skulls laying around… All of this is supposed to be explained in a psychoanalytic framework, but it is really just a saturation point of gialli excess. Almost all films in this genre focus on the perverse and often idle lives of upper class Italians. In the Folds of the Flesh is one that does so, reaching a point of sublime absurdity. It is like a Douglas Sirk film made by a crew of people on acid and a screenwriter on PCP. This is not a bad thing, and as I mentioned at the beginning, the incoherence is beneficial to a film that, if it were made in another time and place, could have ended up being completely unwatchable.
In his book La Dolce Morte, Mikel J. Koven relates giallo techniques to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s concept of the “cinema of poetry,” which allows for narrative films to break the rules and go outside the boundaries of what is perceived as the correct way of showing things, and what is shown. While I don’t usually give sub-par gialli the benefit of the doubt, the sheer irrationality of In the Folds is bold, rendering it a triumphant cinematic work. Italian cinema auteurs like Pasolini and Michelangelo Antonioni dealt with similar subject matter in poetic films that break with traditional narrative, but it would be elitist to claim they are any more appreciable than Bergonzelli’s beautiful train wreck of a picture.