Film Review: A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Updated: May 13, 2021
A heady mix of trashy exploitation and undeniable artistry.
Body horror fans expecting any gross out transformation scenes are bound to be disappointed as the only reptile that this film boasts of, is in the title. This misdirection could be blamed, if at all, on Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It was the great success of the latter that opened the floodgates to many other gialli with disparate animals in their titles.
These films offered best of both the worlds: ample of exploitation tropes i.e. sex, nudity and gore, wrapped up in European art-house chicness.
Or maybe, it was the other way around. You decide.
The gleefully disorienting mixture of hand-held camera, slow-motion and sudden zooms, all set to Ennio Morricone's score that opens the film would make all major practitioners of the period proud, and the fans salivate.
We see a woman Carol Hammond (grindhouse legend Florinda Bolkan) run from something (or someone) inside a moving train. She tries to find safety by opening coach doors but no one helps. The narrow passage of the train is populated by various couples and she is having some difficulty moving. Suddenly, and seamlessly thanks to a brilliant edit, this passage transforms into another one, on more stable grounds, which also has people as obstacles but this time they are all young, naked and more frivolous. Then, she is falling through the dark like Alice (the one who went to Wonderland). Her thick fur coat ripples in the wind like grass and has buttons that resemble eyes - a Giallo preoccupation.
She ends up in a room where another woman, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg) awaits. They begin to make out while two hippies watch them from a balcony. Anyone who tells you that Giallo is much more about having a sensory experience rather than narrative coherence is not lying.
This reveals itself to be a dream and in another similar one, Carol sees herself stabbing Julia. The story kicks into action when Julia is actually found stabbed to death.
The second half of the film is more plot oriented where police detectives try to find the killer. The film might not hit the dizzying heights of the beginning but there are enough twists and turns to keep a viewer occupied.
Carol's father Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn) is a British politician and Carol's husband Frank (Jean Sorel) works for him. The film is also striking in its astute psychoanalysis, provided by Carol's psychiatrists who provides detailed explanations for her erotic and violent dreams. Though by the end of the film's denouement, he comes across as rather ridiculous. I enjoyed this and think it is a rather perverse idea to use psychoanalysis as a diversion.
This also made me realise how this might have been an inspiration for Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. Maybe he owes the careful plot build up to HItchcock, but many of his visual touches - along with sexual dreams, Freudian explanations, sexual guilt etc., are present here.
There are also some great visual flourishes in bizarre jump cuts, like this one:
There is also a bravura chase sequence through an abandoned factory. This features some shocking imagery. Dog lovers are warned and all but by that time even they will, hopefully, be too gripped in the central mystery to care.
Lucio also proves himself to be adept at handling the plot as he efficiently shifts the audience's focus of doubts to all key characters. The climax is surprisingly simple - more Agatha Christie than Mario Bava with the detective simply explaining what happened. Its almost as if, by the end, like its main character, even Fulci has exhausted himself.