Sometimes, in a world of producer involvement and studio meddling, the director really does know best. That’s certainly the case with The Ape Woman, Marco Ferreri’s 1964 socio-drama and scathing attack on capitalism – which receives a shiny 4K Blu-Ray re-release this week from CultFilms. It’s a film whose message is just as virulent and biting today, with a delightfully twisted original ending that the producers’ efforts to tweak cannot overshadow.
Based loosely on true events, The Ape Woman takes places in Naples, following Maria (Annie Girardot), a woman born with swathes of extra hair across her face and body. She shies away from public, hiding herself from all but her closest allies, until she meets Antonio (Ugo Tognazzi), a projectionist-turned-opportunist when he sees a way for Maria to make him rich. Cue a world where she’s touted as a half-human-half-ape abomination, toured across Europe to line her manipulative business partner’s pockets.
It’s a plot that sounds dour and hopeless on paper – but fear not, as Ferreri is totally aware of this. The Ape Woman is littered with commentary about the role of capitalism and patriarchy in the life of women during the 1960s, and both Girardot and Tognazzi play these roles with aplomb. Maria is every bit as naive as Antonio is opportunistic and coercive, as he robs her of agency for profit – while she sees it as a change to finally express herself in public.
That’s the tragedy behind it: that throughout The Ape Woman, Maria truly thinks that Antonio has her best intentions at heart. It even goes as far as a sham marriage, orchestrated solely to deflect questions around the legitimacy of their business arrangement – but mixing feelings with work becomes even more complicated. Ferreri handles this moral ambiguity with absolute genius, as you’ll end up question whether, perhaps, Antonio may actually care about Maria deep down. Could he genuinely want to protect and preserve her, rather than using her as a cash cow? It’s a question that the film’s two available endings answer in starkly different ways.
Yes, this 4K restoration includes Ferreri’s uncut original ending, which the producers deemed too downtrodden to keep. It was instead replaced by a different conclusion, which went on to garner critical praise, and even a Palme d’Or nomination. Yet the original ending — which we won’t spoil here — is far more in keeping with the tone of The Ape Woman; its conclusions neatly and deplorably closing the thesis Ferreri explores throughout the film.
It’s a film that, after six decades, is starting to feel dated at places. Scenes of Antonio’s assistants in blackface won’t sit well with contemporary audiences, nor the undertones of cultural superiority assumed by him and his cohort, but in other ways, it is just as impactful today as it was controversial in 1964. Ferreri’s teardown of male dominance over female bodies and agency, and the capitalist system that upholds this, is a message as pertinent now as it ever was. Even on a more aesthetic level, the practical effects enabling Girardot to look like the ape woman are terrific.
It makes for a film that’s a must-watch in many ways – the blueprint for later classics like The Elephant Man. Not many films are as charged in their messaging as The Ape Woman, anchored by an ending so striking that it’s impossible not to sing Ferreri’s praises. It’s dark, engaging, and terrifically performed – and The Ape Woman is almost as timely now as it was generations ago.
The Ape Woman is on Blu-ray and digital 11 October from CultFilms.