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Compromising the Position of Giallo Cinema: The Gothic Journeys of Cattet & Forzani, Chapter 5: The Missing Black Woman

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Edwige: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

In The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, the women characters of Edwige and Barbara can be psychoanalytically condensed and composited in very much the same way as the male characters. As a correlative to “Dan Kristensen’s” fear, ineptitude and desires, these women take on characteristics of the much-mythologized femme fatale. While they show signs of this archetype, Cattet & Forzani use their cinematic space to deconstruct and play with this simultaneously lauded and condemned figure.  Although Edwige may be “missing,” her presence is assertively felt by the large, panoramic, extreme close up photograph of her eyes mounted over Dan’s bed. Barbara becomes nearly a farce of the femme fatale, initially introduced into the film wearing nothing but a pair of high heels, smoking a cigarette on the roof and hypnotically staring into the night sky. Later, when she invites Dan to her room in a hallucinatory scene of seduction, he removes her robe to find a glowing, idealized, mannequin-like torso that he embraces and shatters. Barbara then uses her actual body to press the shattered glass into Dan’s chest. He screams in pain as she presses down on him, but the glass only penetrates his body, not hers. These wounds show no sign of scabbing over for the rest of the movie. His fetishization of the glowing mannequin torso acts in the same way that the porn magazine does in the previously mentioned primal scene; these are objects that Dan uses as a replacement for the real female body, which becomes displaced. His body becomes an abject body, one that is unable to stop bleeding. As he flees, the cinematic space implodes into candy-colored giallo lighting, flashes of red and green on both Barbara and Edwige, the latter suddenly appearing like some sort of phantasm. As Dan lies helplessly on the bed, Edwige pushes the pieces of shattered glass further into his chest.

Freud writes, “In composition, where this is extended to persons, the dream-image contains features which are peculiar to one or other of the persons concerned but not common to them; so that the combination of these features leads to the appearance of a new unity, a composite figure.” This is partially true and applicable to the characters in Strange Color, but at the same time the racial difference between Edwige and Barbara creates a particularly gothic kind of conflict when trying to unify a clear composite figure[1]. In his book Haunted Life, critical theorist David Marriott writes about “what happens when fantasy, sexuality, and race combine as ways of seeing the unseeable that have less to do with the settling of differences than with difference itself. Intraracial desire on TV and film, the stain spreading across the screen, corruptive and ruinous, the scotoma in each random glance.”[2] Edwige is a reminder that black women are far too often missing in movies[3]. It is remarkable that none of the characters in the film, who are all white and include a police investigator and a private eye (professions that are noted for harboring intense degrees of racial profiling), ever make note of the fact that she is black. That being said, the way in which her image is inserted into the film is a reminder of the internalized (in addition to any externalized) racism and misogyny of Dan Kristensen and, by extension, any white audience members.

I specifically consider Cattet & Forzani’s creation of Edwige, the missing black wife, to be a critical response to the racism present in the giallo classic Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Sergio Martino, 1972). Martino’s film, very loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat,” tells the story of Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), a sadistic writer, who torments his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg), and openly treats his black servant Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) as a slave/mistress. In the opening scene, as Oliviero fondles Brenda’s breasts in front of a crowd of visiting hippies, he states that we [Italians] are “losing our colonies but gaining a servant.” In the following scene, Brenda is shown kneeling at his feet, her head in his lap, mirroring the black cat named Satan, which sits next to him on the other side. About 25-minutes into the film, Brenda is murdered by an unknown assailant; Oliviero convinces his wife that they should hide the dead body in the walls of the cellar. Quickly after Brenda’s exit from the story, Oliviero’s beautiful pale-faced, niece Floriana arrives, more or less taking Brenda’s place in the house. Floriana is played by none other than the 70’s Italian sex icon Edwige Fenech[4]. Although Floriana dominates the rest of the film, incestuously seducing both Oliviero and Irina, racist and highly racialized references to Brenda continue to echo through the film up to the final scene. The deliveryman asks where “Snow White” (his ironic nickname for Brenda) is, also joking with Floriana that she is the “latest victim of [Oliviero and Irina’s] slave trade.” Finally near the end of the picture, Irina reaches a breaking point, kills Oliviero with a pair of scissors and buries him in the wall, talking to his dead body, stating that he can now be near his “little black slave for eternity.” All of these statements show that Brenda is not just a character to be quickly killed off, like so many women in giallo cinema, but a character whose memory is violated again and again in open displays of racism.

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Brenda: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Cattet & Forzani’s decision to name Dan’s missing black wife Edwige is undoubtedly referential to Your Vice is a Locked Room. While Edwige Fenech’s Floriana replaces Brenda in the earlier giallo, “Edwige” returns to the screen, only now as a haunting, silent black woman, staring at Dan with contempt, whether in photographs, flashbacks, or scenes of fantasy. In her landmark essay “The Oppositional Gaze,” the feminist critic bell hooks writes, “The existence of black women within white supremacist culture problematizes, and makes complex, the overall issue of female identity, representation and spectatorship.[5] Cattet & Forzani’s introduction of an absent black woman into the center of the story complicates notions of identity that were already quite complicated. The very prominent black gothic tradition is not often discussed in American and European culture. As mentioned in the introduction, the gothic is inherently racialized. Race is usually omitted in relation to Freud’s concept of the Uncanny; identity becomes very fluid and difficult to decipher—blackness as the unseen. The literary scholar Charles Scruggs states, “Charles Chestnut’s “Dave’s Neckliss” (1889), Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces, Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills, and [Toni] Morrison’s Beloved are brilliant examples of this Gothic tradition.[6]
Note that many of these writers are women. This is not to say that Strange Color falls into the tradition of the black female gothic, but the character of Edwige is a reminder of this history, that keeps returning.

Your Vice is a Locked Room expels Brenda as an abject figure, but in Strange Color Edwige refuses to be erased. She could be thought of as the composite avenging ghost of, not only Strange Color’s Barbara, but also Brenda and Floriana from Your Vice is a Locked Room. Edwige’s gaze isn’t solely directed at the blatant racism of 1970’s gialli; Strange Color’s absent protagonist also interrogates how race and racism inform contemporary cinema, not allowing viewers to forget the ambivalent legacy the genre has left behind.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

During her examination of the ‘black femme’ in cinematic space, Kara Keeling notes that this figure, “often is invisible (but nonetheless present), when she becomes visible, her appearance stops us, offers us time in which we can work to perceive something different, or differently.[7] In an otherwise all-white movie, the character of the black woman is immediately noticeable, yet viewers may not know exactly why or may not want to articulate the power of racial difference. Indeed, most reviewers of the film do not mention the missing wife’s blackness because doing so would create the potential for misunderstandings as to why such a fact should be talked about. Simply put, the inclusion of the “missing” black woman gives the film an explosive potential, in a genre that already uses loaded subject matter to indicate potential destabilizing forces. Edwige’s appearance in only interstitial (fantasy or flashback) scenes or suspended (in still photographs) speaks to these invisible, yet present cinematic tissues of the film. In Strange Color fantasy, sexuality, and racialized subjectivity implode into a languid phantasy of racial confusion. The incidentally black and white cinematography used for the opening scenes, of Edwige finding sexual pleasure in rubbing a knife blade up and down her body, playing sexual games with a leather-clad figure, is mirrored far later in the film, when Barbara experiences very much the same thing. This fantastically violent imagery confuses the viewer, who may find that the mirroring of actions associates the two women, or quite the opposite—to indicate their difference.    

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The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

Not only is Edwige a femme fatale, but one who is a reminder of racial difference, and thereby the history of racialized violence; this combination of the black femme fatale in an otherwise white film becomes the most gothic figure in the whole picture. Later, Marriott states, “The experience of being taken over by a racial imago—of being intruded upon, displaced, and fixated by an imaginary double—recurs in many accounts of black identity and identification.[8] The displacement of identification may explain the presence of Barbara. Marriot continues, discussing the abject phantasy of being “turned into shit by an organic communion with the black body.[9] Strange Color does not strive for a liberatory representation of blackness, but rather aggravates the white, male hegemonic structure, forcing Dan Kristensen to face not only his loss of power in the face of woman, but of the black woman.  

Laura

As Dan wanders through the apartment building he encounters other characters, interrupted by their anecdotes, and flashbacks, although it is impossible to know whether these memories are of things that actually happened to the characters or not. Much like the mootness of a plot, whether things are representations of reality or fantasy really doesn’t matter. All of the little stories indicate the fetishization or displacement of desire that is present in Dan’s primal scene. The bearded man, who looks very much like Detective Vincentelli in disguise, is hired to observe Barbara, which he does with much voyeuristic pleasure. However, he is always behind a two-way mirror or camera lens when looking at her, or actually behind her, following, attempting to stay unseen. His eye becomes a camera lens, the very picture of scopophilia[10]. Much like the rear-view mirror of the taxi sequence in Amer, I suggest that the two-way mirror in this sequence of scopophilia is placed there to bring viewers’ attention to the male gaze, forcing them to confront it, partially if not wholly disarming it.

1944: Gene Tierney, as Laura, dressed in a raincoat and rainhat, stares solemnly at co-star Dana Andrews who plays Detective McPherson in the film 'Laura' directed by Otto Preminger.

1944: Gene Tierney, as Laura, dressed in a raincoat and rainhat, stares solemnly at co-star Dana Andrews who plays Detective McPherson in the film ‘Laura’ directed by Otto Preminger.

Cattet & Forzani can’t help but to reference cinematic history, whether it be 1970’s giallo or 1940’s film noir, specifically Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). In another anecdotal scene that brings Strange Color to a further level of meta-cinematic confusion, Dermont the landlord, sits at a table and unlocks what looks like a diary. An uncritical eye would believe that he is reading the content of the book, but as the female voiceover begins recounting what would be the words on the page, we see a close up of Dermont’s eyes looking forward, not downwards at the page. When it cuts to a shot of his hand on the book, at first it looks as if his finger is following the words line by line. In fact, he is just sensually caressing the paper as if it were the cheek of a lover. Once again, we have a male character who finds an object, this time a book, as a substitute for a woman. In a later scene, Detective Vincentelli finds the book and opens it, revealing the pages are blank. The disembodied voice of the woman, or women as it sounds as though there is more than one voice speaking, is even more cryptic in that the words are spoken in German, the only time that tongue is heard in this overall French-language picture. The subtitles read:

“I don’t want to lose you… I’m afraid of what’s inside me… Something was inside me and changed me… My body became stronger and took over… Sometimes I resist but I feel the strength… As if there was another person that lived with me… inside me… His strength becomes mine… I couldn’t control him any longer… I don’t know what’s true anymore… He wants to control me… Sometimes it comes out of me… But it’s always coming back… I have the feeling I live in an endless nightmare… I wanted to get rid of it… to open it… To appease or resist? How long can I go on resisting?”

The ambiguity of this monologue, what it means, and who it belongs to are very difficult to designate. The only answer that the movie offers is that it belongs to “Laura.” This is evident by the fact that the diary is kept with a memory scrapbook with that name engraved on its cover. Inside are portraits of not just one, but numerous women of different ages and body types pasted inside of it—including images of Edwige and Barbara. The composite male character of Strange Color associates every female with Laura, the girl named in young Dan’s primal scene. What sheds some light on this perverse cinematic set up is, of course, Preminger’s 1944 film, tellingly titled Laura. The general premise of this movie, yet another gothic mystery, is about the murder investigation of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) after she is found on the floor of her apartment with her face blown off. As detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) finds out more and more about her, necrophilial desires begin to haunt his psyche. One night, he wakes up after falling asleep in a chair in her apartment to find Laura, as if back from the dead but very much alive, standing across the room from him; this of course then begs the question—who was the dead woman on the floor of her apartment? This notion of coming back from the dead, going from corpse to thing of desire, is abjection. Dan only had to witness the menstrual blood of the Laura in Strange Color one time in order for it to haunt him. This is what his primal scene does—in the face of woman the blood continues to well up, Laura comes alive over and over again. No matter how many times one tries to expel it, the abject body will not go away.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

References. 

[1] Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. p. 336.

[2] Marriott, David. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press. 2007. p. xvi.

[3]Scholar Andreas Ehrenreich presents evidence specifically showing the racialist nationalism present in the Italian Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, and the statistic categorization of Angela La Vorgna, player of the black maid in the soon-to-be-discussed giallo Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key, as not only an actress, but a black actress. He states, “Even though there were three actresses of foreign origin in a cast which initially consisted of only 12 characters, this formation conformed to the Ministry’s regulations in order to be recognized as a domestic film… this section [article 4 of the cinema law] permitted foreigners who had been living in Italy for more than three years or who were cast because of their role requiring “genotypic characteristics” to be hired for productions that otherwise would not fulfill the quota of Italian employees necessary in order to obtain the certificate of nationality. La Vorgna was granted an exemption due to the need for a black actress to play Brenda.” This beaurocratic element of the films production indicates the industry’s need for “Italianicity,” and how simply to cast a black woman in a role, required exemptions from a specified quota of Italian talent. La Vorgna is not only othered because of her “genotypic characteristics,” but also because she is not Italian. This shows the institutionalized difficulty for women of color to literally be seen on movie screens in the country. (Ehrenreich, Andreas. “The Production of Your Vice is a Locked Room.” Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats. Shenley: Arrow Video, 2015. pp. 30-1.)
The inherent racism seen in film industries is still rampant internationally. One obvious example would be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences exclusion of all black talent from the Oscar nominations this year. Journalist Tim Gray writes, “The guilds don’t keep records on the racial breakdown of their membership. But most have training programs designed to help foster more career advancement opportunities for minorities and women. But so far, hiring in Hollywood is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men.” (Gray, Tim. “Academy Nominates All White Actors for Second Year in a Row.” Variety. https://variety.com/2016/biz/news/oscar-nominations-2016-diversity-white-1201674903/ Published: January 14, 2016. Accessed: February 24, 2016.)

[4]Justin Harries’ video essay “The Strange Vice of Ms Fenech,” goes into explicit detail about Fenech’s effect on Italian and world cinema. French-occupied-Algerian born, to Maltese and Sicilian parents, Fenech began her career as a pin-up model, moved on to be “The Queen of Giallo,” and then continued to become a television personality and producer. Regarding her iconic status as a sexual commodity, Harries states, “It is Fenech above all who remains the best remembered and most revealed. The reasons? The most obvious is her beauty, which combines the gamine grace of Audrey Hepburn with the robust carnality of Sophia Loren.” It should be noted that Fenech later had a brief cameo in Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part 2 (2007), indicating that the supremacy of commodified sexuality continues well up to current film industry practices. (Arrow Video, 2015)

[5]hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. p. 124.

[6]Scruggs, Charles. “”The Power of Blackness” Film Noir and Its Critics.” American Literary History. Vol. 16 No. 4 (Winter, 2004) p. 684.

[7]Keeling, Kara. The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense. Durham: Duke U Press, 2007. p.2.

[8] Marriott, David. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press. 2007. p. 208.

[9] Ibid. p. 212.

[10]Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books: New York, 1975. p. 251.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Born on a Friday the 13th, Joseph Dwyer has an ambivalent relationship with horror cinema that ranges from visceral pleasure to investigative schizoanalytics. He holds two master’s degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, as both a filmmaker and theorist. He is unmoved by most contemporary art, and currently looks to the horror genre as a potential space for new perspectives on desire and dissent.

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