I can remember being fascinated with Marco Ferreri’s The Ape Woman (La donna scimmia) from the first time I saw a still from it in the May 1964 issue 28 of Famous Monsters of Filmland. A woman wearing eye makeup and sporting a beard and hairy legs poses provocatively for the camera while her mate, either a man in a tacky ape costume or a prop gorilla, rests his head in her lap. The photo description, “Beauty (?) and the Beast make a hairy horror pair in THE APE WOMAN,” was the only information offered about this upcoming release and, since it was being featured in FFofF, I assumed it qualified as fantasy cinema.
Produced by Carlo Ponti, The Ape Woman received favorable critical attention when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964, garnering a nomination for the Palme d’Or. But I didn’t catch up with it until the early nineties when Something Weird Video released it on VHS as part of their “Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers from the Vaults” series. What had been promoted as a fantasy film by FFofF was actually a caustic social satire and that bizarre image of the simian couple did not appear in the actual film; it was a publicity shot that was taken on the set of a film sequence that involves a nightclub act in Paris.
Yet, despite the fact that the Something Weird release was less than pristine with a soft image, uneven audio levels and crudely dubbed in English, there is something compelling about the film (which I recently revisited) that addresses issues of human exploitation, male/female relationships, and Italian society in the sixties. It also bares traces of Italian neorealism with its vivid, on-location scenes set in lower working class neighborhoods and sequences which mix film stars and non-professional actors such as a key turning point in the film, an astonishing public wedding ceremony. The final fadeout is also refreshingly unpredictable though it is now well known that the U.S. release had a completely different ending from the European cut, but more on that later.
Few, if any, champions of the film surfaced when The Ape Woman opened in the U.S. Typical of most reviewers, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, couldn’t resist making jokes about the film’s subject matter: “The only redeeming feature of this oddly distasteful film is the fact that a certain haunting pathos does emerge from it.….It is evident that the censors have used their shears on this film. The producer should have beat them to it. He should have used shaving cream.”
Partially inspired by the real life Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), who was born with hypertrichosis, a genetic condition that made her look like a cross between a woman and a gorilla, The Ape Woman stars Annie Girardot as Maria, the title character, and Ugo Tognazzi plays Antonio, the promoter who discovers her in a poorhouse run by nuns and ends up exploiting her in a sideshow. There are expected complications along the way; Maria ends up falling in love with the crass Antonio but runs away when he tries to pimp her out to a suspect “anthropology professor” with an obsessive interest in her body and sexual history. Afraid of losing his box-office attraction, Antonio agrees to marry her but continues to exploit Maria in humiliating ways including a striptease act for Parisian audiences which becomes a wildly successful attraction (she is promoted as “the angel with hair”).
The film shares some similarities to Fellini’s La Strada in which a peasant sells his naive daughter Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) into a life of servitude to a brutal sideshow strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). But Tognazzi’s crass hustler is not nearly as abusive as Quinn’s Zampano and there are occasional flashes of compassion and concern under his opportunistic facade. In some ways, The Ape Woman plays out like a metaphorical gender twist on Beauty and the Beast with Antonio’s conniving impresario presented as someone who is not a fully evolved human being. Yet, in the course of the couple’s life on the road, Antonio is slowly tamed and domesticated by Maria, whose true beauty emerges in the end.
Although you could argue that Antonio’s interest in Maria is purely financial, his persistence in getting her to join him in a business venture has a liberating effect on her. He isn’t openly repulsed by her appearance (“I used to work in a sideshow and I’ve seen worse”) and is even complimentary (“A hairy woman is a virtuous woman”). And their partnership helps Maria gain a self-confidence she never had before. Even if she is initially reluctant to pose as a wild ape woman from Africa for paying audiences, the act allows her to escape the confines and daily drudgery of the nuns’ poorhouse and see a bit of the world. Maria even develops romantic allusions about Antonio which seem wildly improbable but become a reality for her. It is at this juncture that The Ape Woman goes in two different directions.
[Spoiler Alert] In the U.S. release version, an unplanned pregnancy forces Maria to quit her Parisian burlesque show. Although Antonio encourages her to have an abortion, Maria decides to keep the baby. Following a successful delivery (the baby is normal), Maria begins to slowly lose her excess body hair until there is no longer any trace of The Ape Woman. At first Antonio is frantic, then angry, wanting to sue the hospital doctor for ruining their livelihood. In time, he becomes resigned to his fate and takes a job as a manual laborer to support his family. The final shot in the movie shows Maria and her daughter arriving at Antonio’s work site to share a boxed lunch with him. Whereas they were once outsiders, living on the fringes of society, they are now average working class Italians. There is sometime slyly subversive about this final image when you consider all that has gone before.
But Ferreri’s European release of The Ape Woman had a more cynical and downbeat conclusion. Maria and her child die during the delivery and Antonio ends up presenting the mummified bodies of both in his traveling show just as the husband of Julia Pastrana, the real life Ape Woman, did following the deaths of Julia and her newborn son. (As a bizarre footnote, in 2013, Pastrana’s remains were transferred from Oslo, Norway for reburial in Sinaloa de Leyva, Mexico, a town near her birthplace; there are links to articles on this below). I have not been able to learn whether Ferreri was forced to add an upbeat ending for the U.S. release or if he actually preferred the grim fadeout of the Italian cut.
Certainly Ferreri was not one to shy away from shocking denouements. In such films as 1973’s La Grande Bouffe (four men make a pact to eat, drink and f*ck themselves to death) and 1976’s The Last Woman (Gerald Depardieu cuts off his penis with an electric carving knife as a personal response to feminism), he would take an extreme situation to its logical conclusion. I actually prefer Ferreri’s more experimental, hard-to-classify cinema such as the visually dazzling Dillinger is Dead (1969), probably his masterpiece, and the futuristic allegory, The Seed of Man (1969).
I also like the less outrageous, more tongue-in-cheek social satires of the early sixties such as El Cochecito (1960), The Conjugal Bed (1963) and the U.S. version of The Ape Woman. There are still some signs of Ferreri the provocateur in the latter, especially in the opening scenes at the nunnery where Antonio witnesses a slide show of a trip to Africa by missionaries. One slide shows a priest (a cameo appearance by the director a la Hitchcock) trying to convert a topless native and the next slide shows the missionary’s head on a stick. But, on the whole, I admire Ferreri’s unsensationalized approach to a story that was geared toward exploitation but instead emerged as an offbeat and fascinating drama about human nature. Even in Something Weird’s inferior, English dubbed transfer of The Ape Woman, the film’s finer qualities shine through.
In addition to the expert performances by Tognazzi and Girardot in the leads, The Ape Woman is enhanced by the atmospheric black and white cinematography of Aldo Tonti (Europa ’51, Nights of Cabiria, Barabbas) and marks one of several collaborations between Ferreri and Spanish screenwriter Rafael Azona, who is also well known for his work with Carlos Saura (Peppermint Frappe, Honeycomb, The Garden of Delights). With a little luck, maybe we’ll be able to see a restored version of The Ape Woman one day.