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Italian horror after 1971 was dominated by director Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage began a string of much-imitated bloody thrillers given the generic name giallo. Veering somewhat from the standard giallo clichés of masked killers, black leather and shiny straight razors is 1974's elegantly titled The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Il profumo della signora in nero), written and directed by Francesco Barilli. The big draw for horror fans is star Mimsy Farmer, an adventurous American actress with an interesting career.
Perfume walks a fine line between psychological thrills and a straight tale of the supernatural. Career chemist Sylvia Hacherman (Farmer) enjoys a quiet social life; her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) travels to Africa to work. He introduces her to Andy (Jho Jhenkins), a wealthy African who makes cocktail conversation about the Black Magic traditions of his home continent. Sylvia is soon experiencing waking dreams and irrational hallucinations involving objects and people from her past. She's haunted by phantom images of her mother, who died from a fall when Sylvia was a little girl, engaged in violent sex. Sylvia is also visited by a little girl in a white party dress, who seems to be her younger doppelgänger. Roberto and Andy entreat Sylvia to attend an unpleasant séance conducted by a blind medium. Sylvia doesn't know what to do when one of her friends turns up dead, possibly murdered. In some of her hallucinations she appears to commit gruesome murders.
Francesco Barilli comes from a family of artists and musicians, and his forays into film directing are balanced by his work as a painter. As a film actor he's best known for the lead role in Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution. Writer-director Barilli's first feature depicts Sylvia's perplexing adventures in fairly realistic terms, without the fashion-magazine fetishism associated with Dario Argento. Although we suspect that Sylvia has surreptitiously been drugged once or twice, no strong visual clues are used to mark the boundaries between reality and induced madness. Barilli creates a sense of elegant unease that doesn't depend on a string of gory killings. Key murders occur off camera, showing a restraint not found in a film by Signor Argento. Yet Perfume doesn't shirk from shocking content: Barilli holds a stinger in reserve for his nasty, nihilistic conclusion.
Horror fans will detect a busy thematic correspondence between Barilli's film and the thrillers of Roman Polanski. His first shot of a family photograph is similar to one in Polanski's Repulsion, and tips us off to Perfume's central theme. Predating Polanski's The Tenant, a horrific fall from an apartment balcony becomes the subject of obsessive repetition. Although some events are ambiguous, it appears that Sylvia's boyfriend Roberto betrays her in much the same way that the John Cassavetes character betrays Mia Farrow in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. The desires of a murderous group of cultists appear linked to Sylvia's personal past history -- as a small child, Sylvia may have "punished" her mother for taking a lover after the disappearance of her sailor father.
Mimsy Farmer's previous starring role in the Argento thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet led to her being cast in Perfume. The slim blonde plays Sylvia Hacherman as intelligent and resourceful, and it is indeed alarming to see her slip farther into madness induced by the cultists. Sylvia is comparable to Mia Farrow's beleaguered heroine in Rosemary's Baby. Both women are set up to become helpless victims. In an interview with Mark F. Berry, Ms. Farmer expressed her displeasure that director Barilli cut moments that showed a tougher side of the character. The actress's early career was a succession of bold and courageous choices. Hemmed in by "sweet" characters, Farmer segue'd first into A.I.P. youth revolt pictures, and then went to Spain with young German director Barbet Schroeder for the iconic counterculture film More. She was not one to be dismayed by the nude scenes required for Barilli's horror film.
Although many exploitative giallos associate female sexuality with violence, The Perfume of the Lady in Black doesn't encourage the audience to applaud the killing of women. But Barilli's African Black Magic cult does reinforce outdated racist attitudes. The mysterious Andy taunts Sylvia with an enthusiastic speech about blood rites on the dark continent, specifically the practice of driving someone mad as a prelude to killing them. Once again, horrible rites from outside "cultured" Europe threaten vulnerable white women. Even without a Christian context, the film scapegoats the Third World as inherently "evil".
That subtext won't deter horror fans that enjoy a mystery filled with strange events and psychological hallucinations. Sylvia ends up sitting with a little girl (Lara Wendel) who is herself as a young child, discussing a favorite music box. This phantom child recalls Mario Bava's demonic blonde in his Kill, Baby... Kill!, a motif borrowed by Federico Fellini for his frightening short film Toby Dammit. To be fair, Richard Loncraine's later, excellent Full Circle (The Haunting of Julia) covers the exact same ground of a psychologically damaged woman plagued by guilt over the fate of a small child. Loncraine's film begs for comparison with Rosemary's Baby by his casting of Mia Farrow in the lead role.
Mimsy Farmer brings her own distinctive personality to Perfume and acquits herself well as a confused young woman who doesn't know who she can trust. We're fairly suspicious of Maurizio Bonuglia's smug boyfriend, but the film also provides other suspects in an eccentric retired professor (Mario Sciacca) and Sylvia's beautiful, trusting girlfriend (Donna Jordan). And what's going on with the mysterious Andy, whose Rolls-Royce ferries groups of suspicious associates into what looks like a half-completed automobile tunnel? Why do they wear raincoats to walk underground? The Perfume of the Lady in Black caps its psycho-supernatural mystery with a very disturbing finale.
RaroVideo's DVD of The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a flawless uncut transfer of a giallo thriller not previously released on home video in America. The soft color tones flatter the film's many attractive interiors. The disc is encoded with two original soundtracks. Most of the actors perform in English but the Italian language track (removable subtitles included) has the better dub and mix. Nicola Piovani's delicate music fits the film's off-kilter mood. The first few notes of his main "phantom memory" theme is uncomfortably similar to Krzysztof Komeda's haunting lullaby from Rosemary's Baby.
An insert flyer contains unattributed liner notes that appear to have been roughly translated from Italian. The disc has biography and filmography notes for Francesco Barilli. The director also appears in an interesting interview featurette to talk about his background in the arts and his experience making this unusual entry in the giallo cycle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Perfume of the Lady in Black rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.