The Ape Woman review – monster satire with a bizarre alternate ending gain | Movies
MArco Ferreri’s 1964 film La Donna Scimmia (The Ape Woman) is a bizarre satire whose effect depends on you not knowing how bizarre and satirical it is supposed to be. This is due to the vivid sentimental tragicomedy streak that runs through the film – in fact, through the two versions of the film that have been made and which are now included in the Blu-ray and digital versions of this release. Producer Carlo Ponti persuaded the director to create a ‘happy ending’ version so that the film could be shown at the Cannes film festival, and there is the original version that Ferreri shot with its much darker ending. But you have to watch out for both; this double story gives the film a new tenderness and complexity.
The Ape Woman is based on the true story of Julia Pastrana, a 19th-century Mexican indigenous woman with hypertrichosis, a condition that meant hair covered her entire body. Like “Elephant Man”, she has been exploited as a fairground monster. Ferreri’s drama, which is now set in 1964, gives us a mischievous and seedy entrepreneur called Antonio, played by Ugo Tognazzi, who brought his slide projector to a convent in Naples to put on a supposedly improved show and education on missionaries in Africa. In the kitchens of the convent, he discovers a chilly young novitiate, Maria (Annie Girardot), who is ashamed of being terribly covered with hair. Antonio chivvies and charms the poor girl and persuades the sisters to let him take her home, eventually agreeing to marry her so he can put on a rowdy alley show in a converted warehouse she has to frolic in and out of. out of a cage, pretending to be a monkey, while Antonio snaps a whip and tells the stunned crowds that he found her in Africa.
Soon, Maria becomes more confident in her performance, and local impresario Majeroni (Achille Majeroni) brings their absurd act to Paris, transformed into an exotic striptease routine. Maria becomes pregnant; in one reality, she and her shaggy baby die miserably in childbirth, but in the other version, she survives, with a normal baby. However, the experience causes her own excess hair to fall out and she becomes like any wife and mother, while Antonio humbly submits to normal dockwork. It is not a question of one end being better or more authentic than the other: they must be consumed in parallel.
21st-century audiences will, of course, see The Ape Woman as a satire on misogyny, racism and exploitation. It is also comparable, in its surrealist challenge to good taste, to Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, or Nagisa Oshima’s Max Mon Amour from 1986, with a woman mistaking a chimpanzee for her lover. It also recalls the The scary song of MC in Cabaret with her monkey-faced lover: “If you could see her through my eyes… she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” But it’s also clearly intended in other, less readable ways: as a largely heartwarming, albeit odd, uplifting tale of pride, redemption, and love.
There are some incredible moments in The Ape Woman: especially Antonio and Maria’s wedding, when he takes her outside to parade the streets as she sings the wedding song through a microphone. And there is something very sorry about their striptease, with its macabre new sex appeal testifying to what we have no choice but to see as a loss of innocence.
Perhaps the time has come to see this film not as a black comic provocation, but something to put next to Fellini’s La Strada, something intimate, a vision of poignant lust with its alternate realities: Antonio saving his wife’s mummified corpse from the museum so that he can continue to do a gruesome spectacle with it, and Antonio meets his wife and child for lunch while he works hard at the docks. Ferrera (and Ponti) sort of created something daringly postmodern.