ALL THE COLOURS OF EDWIGE: PART 1
How Giallo’s quintessential starlet subverted her pin-up status.
Born in 1948, French-Algerian actress Edwige Fenech moved from France to Rome in 1968 and found success in many genres of cinema. She is perhaps best known for her roles in two genres – commedia sexy all'italiana (softcore sex farces popular in Italy at the time) and, of course, Giallo. Fenech would star in the films of Mario Bava, Andrea Bianchi and Ruggero Deodato, and in a number of starring roles for director Sergio Martino.
A combination of her looks, her popularity in erotic cinema, and the misogynistic tone and content of the Giallo has meant that Fenech is often remembered chiefly as a sex symbol. In fact, her nuanced performances within the genre proclaim an often unrecognised depth that should be celebrated…as this breakdown of two of her finest Giallo roles will explain.
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH (Sergio Martino, 1971)
In this, Martino’s first entry into the canon, Fenech stars as the titular Mrs (Julie) Wardh, an heiress, socialite and wife of a diplomat who suffers from a mental anguish that threatens to consume her.
She is the focal point for the three men in the movie – her husband, her ex-boyfriend and her new lover. However, Wardh is far from an object of desire. In fact, she is the subject of a murderous plot hatched by the men in conspiracy. Each has something to gain from her death – money – and each has decided that they desire that wealth more than they could ever desire her.
But Wardh is no victim. In Fenech’s performance, she is one of the most captivating and endearing characters in all of Giallo.
Yes, she suffers through the machinations of her murderous men. She is painted as a tragic figure, exuding heartache while also grappling with her psychological state, and a sexual perversion that refuses to release her from its grip. Despite these obstacles, Fenech as Wardh is never passive. She endures all that is visited upon her with an incorruptible presence - a composure that indicates a woman of great inner strength. Wardh seeks to bring the sex fiend serial killer to justice, and actively works to identify the culprit (she believes him to be her sadistic ex-lover). Later, she shows her resourcefulness, determination and physical skills when confronted by the killer in an abandoned concrete parking garage. She not only successfully hides from the predator but manages to outwit and evade him.
“A wall is no use…what I need is protection from myself!”
Like all the best entries in the genre, Martino’s film’s biggest character is its style. The lavish locations and sumptuous set design, filled with contrasts of light and dark, of rolling curves and parallel stripes of brilliant colour, strikes at the viewer’s eyes as viscerally as the killer’s blade assaults his victims. Wardh is the centrepiece of the movie, and Fenech oozes style in the role. From her introduction, dressed in starkly contrasting black and white (long white skirt, black silk blouse, white turban), Fenech is the most captivating sight in Martino’s lens, and demands the viewer’s undivided attention. She is panache personified - her impeccable wardrobe, perfect hair and contoured make up serve to protect Wardh’s fragile interior with an impenetrable barrier, an irrepressible aesthetic to shield her vulnerabilities from the predators around her.
Compared to her, the victims of the film’s sex-fiend killer are lesser women with little characterisation, who cannot hope to imitate the film’s protagonist. Mainly blonde-haired street walkers and party girls (in contrast with Fenech’s raven-like brunette locks and refined character), they are stripped and killed in short order. Wardh’s style, her panache, appears to offer her a durable protection not afforded to the women around her.
And yet, her vulnerabilities are always present. Fenech manages to project an external aesthetic shield that is forever under threat, at risk of disintegration and of laying bare the insecurities and the heartache and the terror that lurks beneath. Peel this back and there is yet a third layer – that irrepressible resolve beneath the vulnerabilities, the steel will that sees her through the torment visited upon her by the men in her life.
Only Fenech could play the role. Her intricately sculpted face imbues her with a strength, assuredness and confidence akin to Cleopatra, but fragility lies just beneath, forever seeking to undermine, to be brought to the fore in an instant. Her voluptuous body, perfect though it is, becomes secondary to the majesty of her performance and it would be the height of ignorance to see her as only a sexual object in such an unusual and layered role.
The ‘Strange Vice’ of the title (Wardh’s sexual kink, discovered with her sadistic former lover) only serves to further underline the strength of the character, rather than debase Fenech with meaningless, gratuitous sex scenes. Her desire is to make love in a bed of broken glass, and it is the glass - not Wardh - that becomes the fragile component of the necessary set piece. A bottle shatters into a thousand tiny pieces, gently falling upon Fenech’s naked body like raindrops. Wardh is in control here, more so than at any other point in the movie. Not only is she comfortable where many would not dare to tread, this dangerous scenario unlocks her passion, her desire, her orgasm. She is cut, and bleeds, but derives intense pleasure from the experience. In her nakedness, she is a strong and intimidating woman where most of us would feel at our most vulnerable.
As the narrative progresses and her back is to the wall, Wardh continues to show resourcefulness and resilience. She turns to each of the men in her life for solace only to find heartache, her character grows and she comes to learn that the one person she has overlooked – herself – is the only one who can possibly save her. It is at this point, in the last half hour of the movie as the mystery finally unfolds, that Wardh takes centre stage, outwits and outpoints those that sought to repress and destroy her.
As Julie Wardh, Edwige Fenech gives us a troubled figure of violently clashing characteristics and emotions, a woman imbued with strength and vulnerability, whose personal pandemonium is every bit as dangerous to her as the external threats from the men who wish to kill her. That Fenech accomplishes all of this (and more) is testament to the depth and skill of the true Queen of the Giallo – so much more than just a sex object.
ON FRIDAY: we take a look at another of Edwige Fenech’s standout Giallo performances in Sergio Martino’s 1972 film All The Colors Of The Dark.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Barkan, Jonathan (2013) Let’s Get Weird – The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh AKA Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh
Cowlin, Robert (2010) Cult Cinema: The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh 1971
The Vicar of VHS (2009) The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh 1971: or, It’s In the Blood
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