Perfume of the Lady in Black, The (1974)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-04-05 01:31

Written by: Francesco Barilli and Massimo D‘Avak
Directed by: Francesco Barilli
Starring: Mimsy Farmer, Maruizio Bonuglia, and Mario Scaccia

Reviewed by: Brett G.

“Only Silvia's good. All the others are evil.”

Say what you want about the Italians, but I don’t think anyone can make more fascinating films about insanity than they can. Over the years, Italian horror maestros have been dreaming up lurid tales of deviancy and depravity, and we’ve all had a lot of fun watching people just go nuts. Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black hails from this grand tradition and finds yet another young woman in psychological peril and on the edge of breaking down. The more intriguing question, however, pertains to who or what is driving her to the edge of madness.

Silvia (Mimsy Farmer) is a seemingly well-adjusted young lady with both a steady job (as a chemist) and a boyfriend. When she isn’t working, she finds herself playing tennis and attending typical social events. However, she soon begins experiencing strange phenomena--she sees things that might not be there, like a mysterious woman in a black dress. She also begins having strange visions from her childhood--memories, perhaps--that she has long since forgotten.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black certainly sounds like a giallo title, and indeed you might see it billed as one in some circles. It isn’t one, though one can certainly see the stylistic similarities between it and its murder-filled counterparts. There’s sleaze, sexual depravity, and other general weirdness; one thing you won’t find an abundance of throughout is murder. In fact, it takes an hour until someone dies, and, even then, it’s off screen. A bloody, hatchet-filled crescendo does eventually emerge, but much of the film is preoccupied with the strange occurrences surrounding Silvia. As such, it’s hard to accurately describe what type of film this is; I suppose one could consider it a giallo without a real murder mystery, as paradoxical as that sounds.

There is some mystery, of course--namely, just what is happening to Silvia? She is certainly losing her grasp on reality, and the things she experiences read like a checklist out of a horror manual: strange black cats, a mysterious young girl, creepy old men, a psychic medium, and, of course, the titular “lady in black.” Her visions and flashbacks feel ripped out of a typical giallo, though they’re used more to create mystery rather than solve them. The preponderance of strangeness throughout give the film a hallucinatory and dream-like tone, and at one point, when quoting from Alice in Wonderland, Silvia ponders wonders aloud, “Life: What is it but a dream?” That’s a question that the film itself may or may not answer.

But the film isn’t in the business of giving answers in general; instead, it deals in mood, atmosphere, and disorientation. In some ways, we as viewers are joining Silvia on her journey through madness, as we’re at the mercy of the director when it comes to determining just what is real and what isn’t. The ultimate reveal in this respect seems to come out of left field unless you connect it with some earlier, seemingly dispensable dialogue. But even so, it’s quite possible that the entire film has been some abstract representation of neurosis, paranoia, or even an ancient, societal evil. The film does have some occult leanings that indicate that Silvia’s breakdown isn't a coincidence and that she has become the target of a vast conspiracy.

Barilli only directed one other feature film, which is a shame since he proves himself so adept here. The likes of Argento and Bava are an obvious influence, as he takes many cues from their gialli, such as long tracking shots, imposing camera angles, mirrors, and ethereal lighting to create an eerie mood. He also channels Polanski quite a bit with a voyeuristic camera that always seems to hover and create unease; there’s also a lot of subjective camera shots that appropriately lead us to question the reality of what is being shown. The occult elements of the film certainly recall Rosemary’s Baby, but Polanski’s other apartment films are echoed as well, as even Silvia’s own home becomes suffocated by weirdness.

The film’s effectiveness hinges on Farmer’s performance; she’s a veteran of this type of film, having appeared in the likes of Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Autopsy. Here, she’s appropriately fragile and seemingly wary of everything and everyone around her; it’s a fine performance that never loses sight that this is a human being losing her mind. The rest of the cast is similarly filled with Italian horror vets like Lara Wendell, Renata Zemengo, and Nike Arrighi. This film is proof that there perhaps some gems left to be found for horror on DVD, and Raro Video have done the film justice for its first Region 1 digital presentation. It’s been masterfully restored with an anamorphic transfer, and the 2.0 Italian mono track is perfectly clear. The special features include a documentary entitled "Portrait in Black," a director’s biography and filmography, and a full-color booklet with an analysis of the film. Suspiria is often cited as a film that overcomes a weak plot by producing an audacious style and mood; Perfume of the Lady in Black is in that same mode, and while it isn’t as generally striking as Argento’s film, it similarly engages viewers in a series of visuals. Only here, the images don’t hold our hand and lead us down a straight path; instead, they force us to wander around and explore what madness might really look like. Buy it!

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