Violence, blood, gratuitous nudity and sex are all at the core of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Sergio Martino, Italy, 1971). These elements are not unique to this particular film—rather they are key traits of the Italian giallo genre, as well as the American slasher film cycle. In the giallo, the mysterious killer’s wrath is targeted at sexually promiscuous females as a means of punishment, and this plot trope forms the basis for the films’ innate misogyny. Indeed, really nothing about the giallo appears remotely feminist. At its surface, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh appears to follow suit with yet another misogynistic slasher film. However certain signifying elements of the film’s style reveal feminist undertones. The use of the handheld camera, the excessive style of the sex scenes that emphasize the female desire and body, and the different treatments of the murders, all evoke a far more feminist viewpoint than other films of the genre.
At the beginning of Strange Vice, protagonist Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) has returned to her apartment in Vienna alone, her diplomat husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza) having been called away on business. It has already been explained to Julie and the viewer that a mysterious killer is going around the city killing beautiful young women with a razor. Already certain anti-feminist tropes of the genre have been developed; that of the (allegedly) male murderer, killing women in a perverted fashion. While Julie’s driver denounces all of these perverts, Julie’s consciousness flashes back to an affair in which she received sexual pleasure from violence, thus establishing her as precisely the sort of promiscuous and sexually deviant woman that this killer would likely target.
Because of this knowledge, when we see Julie naked and alone in her apartment, we become nervous for her. Factoring in the sudden appearance of a voyeuristic handheld camera, the audience becomes certain that Julie is going to meet an early and gruesome end. Because there has been no handheld camera prior to this point in the film, the viewer is led to believe that this stylistic change is meant to place them in the shoes of the killer. The killer’s point-of-view shot is another commonly used trope of the giallo film, so to the experienced viewer this technique almost completely signifies death for Julie.
The handheld sequence begins with the camera motionless at the end of the hallway, with Julie walking out of one room and into another completely naked. At this point, the camera starts to follow Julie into the bathroom. She looks away, preoccupied with drawing her bath. The viewer is certain that at any moment a black-gloved hand will appear in the frame wielding a razor and bring about Julie’s death. Instead, the doorbell rings and Julie looks up in surprise. When she looks up, she looks directly at the camera. It’s a jarring moment, as we feel that we have been caught in the act of looking and admiring her naked body.
By returning our look without terror, Julie is allowed a certain sense of empowerment. While this type of shot nonetheless objectifies Julie, her look back at the viewer unsettles us just enough for us to question why exactly we were looking at her in such a voyeuristic manner in the first place. In this scene, we are also being allowed to view a woman’s naked body without the addition of sex, violence, or murder. At this moment, the film is almost innocent. It is as if it is asking the audience to simply look and appreciate. While this objectification of the female body through the handheld camera’s gaze is hardly feminist in other genres, in the giallo and the slasher film such a “pure” image, devoid of violence or sex, is a rarity. The moment is furthered by her returning of our look, which seems to acknowledge and undermine the camera and the audience’s previous prying eye.
At many points in the film, the audience is presented with graphic and excessive scenes of Julie’s previous affair with Jean (Ivan Rassimov). The couple’s sadomasochistic desires are marked as deviant, as they are something that Julie seems to regret and wishes to forget. While these sequences—and especially the one Julie experiences in the form of a nightmare–deliver soft-core pornography as an appeal to the male viewer’s desires, the way in which these scenes are introduced allows for a more feminist interpretation. Since they are presented as Julie’s memories, it is almost as though she is allowing us to witness them. The zoom into Julie’s face immediately prior to the presentation of the memories serves to emphasize this connection.
Furthermore, the excessive way in which the scenes are edited emphasizes the female body, and not in a misogynistic way. As quoted by Linda Williams in her article “Film Bodies,” Rick Altman explains film excess as “[u]nmotivated events, rhythmic montage, highlighted parallelism, overlong spectacles” (3). The dream sequence is edited in a very rhythmic and repetitive fashion, with many actions repeated from different angles. The scene dissolves into a stylish spectacle, highlighting Julie’s pleasure throughout the encounter. It is this emphasis on Julie that could be seen as empowering to the female. Williams explains that:
[E]ven when the pleasure of viewing has traditionally been constructed to masculine spectators…it is the female body in the grips of an out-of-control ecstasy that has offered the most sensational sight. So the bodies of women have tended to function…as both the moved and the moving. It is thus through what Foucault has called the sexual saturation of the female body that audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations (Williams, 4).
It is because of the representation of the female body that the audience experiences the emotions that they do. The excess and repetition throughout this particular sequence provides an excellent case study for what Williams’ theory of excess and feminine desire. The flashback sequence is overloaded with style and sensation, all based around Julie’s ecstasy. While Jean is clearly in the scene, we are not shown his ecstasy or satisfaction; he seems to just be a tool in Julie achieving satisfaction. Presented as Julie’s memories and dreams, and no one else’s, the excess here serves to subtly undermine the pleasure and desire of the masculine spectator.
The treatment of Julie’s friend Carol’s (Conchita Airoldi) murder also coveys a feminist sensibility. Whereas two other victims of the slasher were murdered during sexually deviant acts, and thus naked, Carol is fully clothed when she is murdered and is never depicted as being sexually deviant. Carol wants us to believe that she has engaged in “unacceptable” sexual practices, constantly dropping hints about her experiences, yet her murder was largely a fluke. The murderer’s plan is to corner Julie in the gardens and kill her, but Carol elects to go in her place. Carol is not murdered because the killer desires to be rid of her. Instead she is killed to protect the killer’s anonymity. Not only is she fully clothed, but her outfit is almost conservative. All of the previous murders involved the slashing and defacing of a woman’s naked body, destroying the female form. With Carol, the naked body is covered and cannot be slashed. Her hands are attacked instead when she holds them up to defend herself. These slashes seem to be more because the killer cannot quite reach his target, rather than out of a desire to vandalize the female body.
This different treatment of Carol is significant because she is the only victim that we have come to know personally. While we briefly saw the second victim at a party, we do not know anything about her character. We have come to know Carol through her position as Julie’s closest confidant. It is almost as if the film cannot bring itself to mar a female form that we are familiar with–a sentiment repeated in Julie’s elaborate and gore-free murder attempt. The film will only ruin the bodies of side characters–women who we only know through their bodies, such as prostitutes and the girl from the party. Although it may seem as though I am splitting hairs, this tendency is more feminist than other slasher and giallo films because the film seems oddly to be protecting the women that it has become close with. This is in opposition with other films of this genre, which leaves no woman unmarked. A woman may escape alive, but in order to do so she will be significantly tortured.
The unusual use of a handheld camera, the visual excess of the sex scenes, and the treatment of Carol’s murder all lend themselves to a feminist reevaluation of The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. While other gialli and slasher films are completely misogynistic, this film allows its female characters to express themselves in new ways previously not explored by the genre.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4. (Summer, 1991), pp. 2-13.