I have to confess, I’ve never been much of a fan of the giallo genre. Whilst I do get something out of the ample atmospherics, the twists and turns you’re expected to follow in terms of plot often lead me either into blind hysterics or blank-faced confusion. Or both – after all, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. Still, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has long been on my hit-list. Not only is that superb poster seductive enough, but I consider myself a fan of Lucio Fulci despite being more than aware that my Fulci education is severely lacking. I mainly know of his more notorious horror output – especially the ‘big three’, The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery and City of the Living Dead – and although I’ve seen some of his other genre fare, I had thus far missed out on his thrillers altogether.
The verdict, having seen Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, is one of pleasant surprise.
The basic plot is thus: we are taken to 1970s London. The Swinging Sixties are over, but the spirit of hedonism is still around – even if not everyone’s happy to partake in it. Heiress and staid thirtysomething Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is a married woman, and boy, does she disapprove of her neighbour Julia, who is turning their apartment block into the Last Days of Rome with her incessant partying.
That would be all well and good, but habitual insomniac Carol is being plagued with very odd dreams about said neighbour – dreams of a sexual nature. Her probably-very-expensive shrink declares that this represents repressed desires; Julia is easy, contemptible even, but something about her is irresistible. Well, if Carol is appalled at the dreams of seduction, she’s even more worried when her dreams turn violent, and she has a nightmare about stabbing the woman to death. Her shrink thinks this is a good thing, ‘closure’ if you will, but Carole isn’t so sure…
This being a giallo, the plot soon thickens. it turns out that Julia really has been killed in her apartment – just as Carol dreamed it – but whodunnit? The sinister butter-wouldn’t-melt stepdaughter? The woman who I’m not sure who she is or what she does but seems to always be in Carol’s flat? Carol herself? The philandering husband? The doting father? The sinister hippies who keep lurking at the fringes of the plot? Whatever is going on, Carol soon has to struggle against impending feelings of unreality, not to mention personal danger…
And there we have it; a good, solid, maybe even standard set-up for a giallo. What counts is what’s done with it next, and Fulci does a really good job here. The first thing which always pops out from the screen with films like this, if they’re done well (and sometimes even if they’re not) is the delightful sense of a sleazy time capsule. Hell, even seeing people happily smoking on screen evokes an odd sort of nostalgia in this day and age. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is heady from the get-go, all lurid colours, lots of warm reds, and – ahem – lots of nubile flesh.
Whilst you can detect some overlap with other filmmakers who made these sorts of obfuscous sex and violence flicks, Fulci definitely seems to have his own eye here – and he cannot resist adding in some moments of trademark horrific, gurgling gore, which pushes things, even by giallo standards. A certain vivisection scene seems to serve no purpose but to layer on the nasty as thickly as possible, and it bloody works. But then again, whilst we have moments like this, we also have some really well-crafted dream sequences. These are, I think, notoriously diffcult to get right, but Fulci does get it right, and these scenes are my favourite in the film. He manages to create a liminal state on-screen which is aesthetically pleasing, symbolic, hedonistic – and deeply nasty, but of course.
I enjoyed all the performances, but the film’s success hinges on Florinda Bolkan’s characterisation of Carol. She’s prim but sexy, and when it comes down to it she does a fine turn as a woman completely terrorized (and, knowing Fulci, you have to wonder if she really was). The only moments in the film which gave me pause for thought were the rather-jarring minor comic turns found in the performances of the police investigating the case. Whilst not enough to derail the film, they felt a little at odds with everything else – I much preferred the deadly serious material, and I’d even say that I saw a few Gothic elements in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – grotesquery, a certain strain of excess, and a world of hidden doors and mysterious spaces.
And the big reveal of whodunnit? It actually – sort of – made sense. This marks it apart from rather a lot of other films in the giallo genre…
Whilst I wouldn’t now consider myself a giallo fan, I definitely liked this film. It’s as least as good as the work of ‘auteurs’ like Argento; A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has all the overblown elements and atmosphere, without being sacrificed on the altar of contrived, even ludicrous science (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, I’m looking in your direction here). Though Una lucertola con la pelle di donna certainly isn’t devoid of silliness, it doesn’t stray to the top of the Beaufort Scale of Implausibility, whilst still feeling pleasingly like a weird dream-within-a-dream and thus never lacking in sheer entertainment value.