Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews, Horror

Seriously Though, What Have You Done to Solange?

[Originally published in Keyframe]

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.

The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.

Sure, giallo is notorious for its gruesome displays of bodies (mostly young, female, and scantily clad) sliced, stabbed, hacked, crushed, skewered, and eviscerated, often executed as elaborately choreographed set pieces of grotesque poetry, sometimes simply crude and grotesque. In terms of explicit violent spectacle, What Have You Done to Solange? is restrained compared to the most extreme examples of the genre (I’m looking at you, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi), and compared to the delirious dances of death from Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Dallamano is downright discreet. And yet it is far more unsettling and transgressive than those more explicit spectacles.

On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Even in the aggressively incorrect sexual politics of the genre, you can’t show that on screen. I don’t know if it is even to Dallamano’s credit that he manages to make abundantly clear the nature of the crime without clinical illustration or gory spectacle, but clarity he achieves when the investigating detective pulls out a B&W crime scene photo with the hilt of a knife clearly jutting out from between the legs of a young victim and a doctor displays an X-ray of a victim’s torso that leaves nothing to the imagination.

What Have You Done to Solange?

Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. Testi is the dreamboat teacher that the female students all moon over and the smarmy authority figure who takes his pick of his admirers and he manages to be both magnetic and questionable, especially given his unnatural interest in the first murder scene. It seems more than simple idle curiosity the way he slips through the police tape for a gander at the corpse. (Just an idle observation: for a mere gym teacher he has unprecedented access to crime scenes.) The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side. Baal, initially presented with hard lighting and unflattering hairstyles, is softened with warmer colors, literally letting her hair down to show their growing reconnection. Their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling, it turns out, and before you know it his adultery is forgiven. An easy out, you might say, but it offers hope and reconciliation in a genre that rarely has either.

As for Solange, her name isn’t even mentioned until the film is half over. But unlike so many gialli which reference hit movies and channel trends with arbitrary (and sometime interchangeable) titles, her identity becomes a mystery of its own and the titular question is key to the murders.

Dallamano stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an illegal abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion are purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality. The cliquishness and sexual adventurism of the girls can be seen as an act of defiance, and their “crime” is only a crime in such an oppressive culture. Giallo historian Michael MacKenzie puts the film in a small subgenre of “child gialli,” though unlike such films as Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or A Whisper in the Dark (1976), these “children” are also sexually active and the objects of salacious interest. It takes the arrival of a mourning parent to remind us that they are indeed someone’s child.

What makes What Have You Done to Solange? so troubling is that you can’t dismiss it as simple, unthinking exploitation. Sure it has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off. It’s partly what has elevated to the film to classic status among giallo aficionados. You’ve got to have something special to stand out in a genre defined by the gothic grace and dark delirium of Mario Bava, the surreal beauty of Dario Argento, and the nightmare worlds of Lucio Fulci. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.