Successful novelist Bernardo Giovanni (Peter Baldwin from Freda’s The Spectre Of Dr Hichcock and Michele Lupo’s The Weekend Murders) winds up an unsatisfactory relationship and returns, out of season, to a hotel in the Alpine village where he grew up. Keen to rekindle an involvement with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a maid he encountered on his previous visit, he is shocked to learn that she has committed suicide and withdraws into obsessive musings about what happened to her, fuelled by gossip he picks up from local photographer Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) and his own observations of the outwardly respectable but seriously dysfunctional family who own and run the hotel… Enrico (Salvo Randone), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy), daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) and clinically depressed daughter-in-law Adriana (Pia Lindström). Fuelled by a flu bug he picks up, Bernard’s memories, dreams, speculations and fantasies fuse in a fashion that causes the viewer to constantly question what they’re seeing. Just as you’re beginning to think that Bernard’s suspicions might be the product of an overheated imagination, Adriana drowns under mysterious circumstances… meanwhile, who is the mysterious lady whose presence haunts the lake?
Made in 1965, a year after Mario Bava’s Sei Donne Per L’Assassino / Blood And Black Lace, La Donna Del Lago / The Possessed is as much ghost story as giallo (in the wide definition offered by Tim Lucas during his commentary track) or even proto-giallo (as suggested in Arrow’s publicity blurb), Luigi Bazzoni’s psychological thriller having more in common with Bergman or Borges than Bava. Although it’s generally accepted that he contributed very little to the film’s actual direction, Franco Rossellini (nephew to the great Roberto and future producer of several Pasolini efforts, also Caligula) is officially credited as co-director, the film is scored by his father Renzo and Pia Lindström, as Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, was of course related to the Rossellini family by marriage… things behind the camera on this one were nearly as incestuous as the familial relationships portrayed in it, inspired by Giovanni Comisso’s book documenting the notorious “Alleghe killings”. Giulio Questi (later the director of Django, Kill! and Death Laid An Egg) collaborated with Bazzoni and Rossellini on the screenplay, which can’t exactly have detracted from the overall quirkiness of the proceedings, then again Bazzoni rendered similarly surreal psychological malaise without Questi’s collaboration in Footprints On The Moon (1975) and even his straight(ish) giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) plays out as an existential crisis suffered by its protagonist / chief murder suspect Franco Nero.
The Lady Of The Lake occupies the crucially important but critically under-explored hinterland between Italian Arthouse Cinema and the B Movie tradition that underwrote it. Bazzoni and his closest circle of collaborators never made it into the august company of erstwhile associates Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni et al, nor did they ever descend to the lowest common denominators of Italian genre cinema. The dynamic between these cinematic demi-mondes is incarnated here by the presence of Francesco Barilli, reminiscing about his friends and collaborators the Bazzoni brothers, Luigi and Camillo, throwing in random bits of tittle-tattle as he goes (“Steve Reeves was rumoured to have a very small cock”). Having played the protagonist of Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution in 1964, Barilli went on to write Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo Who Saw Her Die and Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Deep River Savages (both 1972) before directing his own unforgettable, indefinable oddity Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974).
Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original b/w camera negative does ample justice to the beautiful b/w cinematography of Leonida Barboni (Enzo’s big brother), whose camera team included the up and coming Sergio Salvati (subsequently to pull off so many lighting miracles for Lucio Fulci). Bonus materials include a video appreciation by cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer, who identifies the film’s central thesis as “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Interviews with assistant art director Dante Ferretti and make-up FX ace Giannetto De Rossi are highly watchable but neither of them touches upon The Lady In The Lake to any great extent. De Rossi’s is particularly entertaining. During it he identifies the personal attributes that smoothed his career trajectory (“My deep voice, my big eyebrows and my assassin look! That’s why people feared me. Everyone behaved when I was around”), recalls a run in with Anne Parillaud and confirms that it was his hand pushing Olga Karlatos’s head towards its celebrated intersection with a splinter in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. You also get some trailers and then there’s the stuff I never get to see, including a reversible sleeve that features original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and – in this edition’s first pressing only – an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, plus reproductions of contemporary reviews.
Lucas’s commentary track is every bit as informative and insightful as you’d expect. Bonus points for twice referring to Pasolini’s Jesus biopic by its correct title, The Gospel According To Mathew. Deduct one point for subsequently misidentifying it as “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew”. TL makes much of TLOTL’s sliding perspectives and the difficulty of arriving at Truth with a Capital “T”, a point nicely underlined by the fact that his interpretation of the story’s resolution deviates markedly from my own. I think he watched it with Italian dialogue and English subtitles (as you might well care to, this option reducing as it does the on-the-nose portentousness of Bernardo’s introspective musings) while I oped for the English dubbing. Try running the English language version with English subtitles, which also throws up some significant discrepancies. An already substantial plot thickens…
Figures like Questi, Barilli and the Bazzoni brothers represent a significant but long concealed stratum of Italian Cinema, further illumination of which is long overdue. Arrow’s new edition of La Donna Del Lago constitutes a solid step in that direction.