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Perfume of the Lady in Black, The

Raro Video // Unrated // May 10, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 19, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Few gialli boast a title so immediately evocative of the genre as Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that Barilli has little interest in retreading the same territory as Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Though elements of the giallo are certainly on display here, his 1974 film instead draws more heavily from the psychological suspense of Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and Don't Look Now.

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If only Silvia (Mimsy Farmer) were being tormented by something as ordinary as a shadowy figure with black leather gloves and a straight razor. This industrial chemist is consumed by her work to the detriment of every other aspect of her life, so much so that she was likely teetering on the brink anyway. Even a marginally more blustery than usual afternoon leaving flowers at her mother's grave causes her to look around suspiciously, as if some sinister, unseen force were gazing down upon her. If she hadn't chosen the wrong evening to hang up her lab coat for a short while, perhaps she would've remained on that side of the precipice. Silvia's generally ignored boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) is aching for some sort of social interaction, and they don't even have to travel far from her apartment to take in a little culture. This professor of African anthropology (Jho Jhenkins) has the palatial home to make for an unforgettable dinner party, though he doesn't quite have the manners to match, delving into sacrificial rites and cannibalism with a bit too much zeal for Silvia's tastes. It's shortly afterwards that the already rattled young woman takes her first step headlong into the abyss. One unnerving package after another arrives at her doorstep. Silvia is plagued by visions of her long-dead mother, who all of a sudden is so close that she could almost reach out and touch her. Sexual horrors from the past reawaken. Her home is soon invaded by a demanding child who appears to be none other than Silvia herself. These nightmares soon creep into the light of day. As the line separating delusion from reality becomes increasingly blurred, the body count soars higher and higher.

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As artfully crafted as The Perfume of the Lady in Black is in so many ways, it's too reminiscent of the far superior films that inspired it. The similarities can be distracting: the lead character's fragility and the claustrophobic apartment building backdrop of Rosemary's Baby, the horrors of the past defining the present, subtly supernatural leanings, and abruptly gruesome ending to Don't Look Now, and the hallucinations, uncomfortable sexual elements, and gradual descent into madness from Repulsion. The Perfume of the Lady in Black reaches towards those same heights but falls short. Perhaps that's because Barilli is predominantly fascinated by sights and sounds. The Perfume of the Lady in Black succeeds on both of those fronts, benefitting from frequently striking cinematography and a brilliantly unsettling score by future Academy Award winner Nicola Piovani.

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It's as if so much Barilli's focus was directed towards those aspects of the film that the screenplay suffered. As intense and haunting a performance as this is by Mimsy Farmer -- worlds removed from her turn in Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet just a few short years earlier -- I didn't find Silvia's introduction as a character to be all that compelling. The Perfume of the Lady in Black lacks that emotional investment that Roeg and Polanski were better able to establish from the outsets of their films. Barilli has his version of the parade of oddball neighbors that litter Rosemary's Baby, prompting its heroine's growing mistrust of everyone around her, but the uneven performances and considerably less interesting characters here aren't nearly as effective. It's entirely by design that the events that unfold remain somewhat elusive; the onslaught of references to Alice in Wonderland are no accident. Even as the film draws to a close, it remains unclear what was real and what was imagined...who was gruesomely murdered and whose grisly demises were nothing more than a psychotic fantasy. The visceral finalé is heavily foreshadowed throughout The Perfume of the Lady in Black but somehow still feels stapled on from a different film entirely, tonally out of step with the hour and a half preceding it. Those expecting something more of a traditional giallo should brace themselves for minimal carnage throughout the first hour or so, and the suspense it draws is rarely oriented around the leadup to a murder.

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I had been warned beforehand that The Perfume of the Lady in Black demands a second viewing to be fully appreciated. As this Blu-ray release from Raro Video marks my first time diving into Silvia's psychosis, I can't speak to that. This is a generally well-regarded film, though, and the elements that kept me at arm's length may be an integral part of the appeal to others. Despite my mixed reactions, it's still thrilling to finally have a chance to experience a movie that had languished on my must-see list for so many years. If only it boasted a presentation worthy of that wait.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is drenched in analog video noise. It's an unfortunately familiar sight for an Italian cult cinema release, virtually every one of which seems to be pass through the hands of LVR Video and Post in Rome. Their hopelessly outmoded choice of equipment has ravaged the Blu-ray releases of more films than I could ever hope to count. Worlds removed from film grain, which is an inherent part of the image, this scanner noise instead floats above it. This texture often has a strange, frozen quality to it that's particularly jarring when the camera pans around quickly. Imagine trying to watch a movie through a screen door, and you're somewhere in the ballpark. The clarity of the noise lends these films a false sense of crispness and clarity; when your eyes adjust and look past it, the image underneath is soft and devoid of detail.

Honestly, Raro Video can't be held accountable for that. Italian licensors are notoriously difficult to work with, and it's doubtful that Raro had their choice of masters or their choice of scanners. It was likely LVR's mishandled work or no release at all. This abysmal AVC encode, on the other hand...there's no excusing that. The Perfume of the Lady in Black suffers from an extremely low bitrate encode that's woefully incapable of rendering this scanner noise correctly. Open the screenshot below to full-size, for instance:

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The CRT noise has a nasty tendency to clump together, lending the image a harshly digital quality. Note how lumpy and blocky Mimsy Farmer's hair is in that image. There's not a granule of any vaguely filmic texture to be found; just random, awkwardly compressed bits of noise. There's one moment early on in a darkroom where the upper-left corner devolves into straight-up macroblocking -- something I've hardly ever come across in a full decade of reviewing high-def media. All of that is especially unfortunate as The Perfume of the Lady in Black is otherwise so promising. There is no speckling or wear whatsoever, and its painterly use of color translates wonderfully to Blu-ray. Still, a fundamentally flawed source ravaged further by poor compression leaves little to recommend with anything resembling enthusiasm.

Raro presents the The Perfume of the Lady in Black on a single layer Blu-ray disc. (The encode is so anemic that it could've fit on a single layer HD DVD disc, 24-bit lossless audio and all!) Puzzlingly, the image is windowboxed -- black bars on all four sides -- to achieve an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

At least The Perfume of the Lady in Black sounds better than it looks. The disc offers a pair of 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in two-channel mono: the first in Italian (with accompanying English subtitles) and the other in English. As the film was produced without sync sound and every last element you hear was recorded entirely in post-production, either language is an equally viable choice. I found myself toggling back and forth between English and Italian, and everything I heard was consistently clean and clear, not marred by any intrusive hiss, pops, clicks, dropouts, or any excessive noise reduction artifacts. The actors lending their voices to these soundtracks are largely capable, and, Jho Jhenkins or whoever stood in for him aside, I didn't find that swaying my preference towards one track or the other. The English dialogue sounds a little more full-bodied, despite a good bit of sibilance, while the Italian recording is more trebly and almost brittle at times. Some of the effects exhibit differences as well, such as a child's disembodied voice that's sopping with reverb in English but not in Italian. It's also worth noting that although the English subtitles are often very close to the English "dub", they're not a direct transcription and do appear to be the "improved English subtitle translation" listed on the flipside of the case.

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The short version is that no matter which language you choose, you're unlikely to be disappointed.

  • Barilli (16 min.; HD): This interview with writer/director Francesco Barilli -- conducted in Italian and subtitled into English -- veers all over the place. He'll speak about The Perfume of the Lady in Black for a moment, quickly tear off on an entirely unrelated tangent, return to Perfume... for fifteen seconds, and get derailed again almost immediately. As unfocused as it is, I still greatly enjoyed this conversation with Barilli, especially how bluntly he'll unleash gems like "I had yet to add in the cannibals." He weaves a story about how a trip to Geneva inspired imagery of bankers cannibalistically feasting upon their clients that would soon be woven together with elements of Rosemary's Baby. From there, Barilli charts the evolution of various drafts of the screenplay. The filmmaker also speaks about shopping the project around, assembling a cast, and the response from both critics and enthusiastic audiences alike. Well worth a look.

  • The Knight Errant (23 min.; SD): Written, directed, and produced by Francesco Barilli, this short film is listed as The Wandering Knight on the disc's packaging and titled Il Cavaliere Errante in the film itself. This 2011 short charts the Grim Reaper suffering from an existential crisis, leaving his scythe behind and thus preventing anyone from dying...and, naturally, a small army of heavily stylized puppets chime in with narration. Overlong but daringly different, its inclusion here by Raro is greatly appreciated.

    The Knight Errant is presented in 1080p24 but very much looks like a SDV production that's been upscaled. There is severe macroblocking as well, as if someone had downloaded this off YouTube...where, incidentally, Barilli has made it available.
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  • Trailer (3 min.; HD): The theatrical trailer for The Perfume of the Lady in Black is presented in both English and Italian, again with optional English subtitles.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black arrives in a slipcase with its own unique set of artwork. Also included is a brief set of liner notes that inexplicably seem to think that Rosemary's Baby was released at the dawn of the 1960s.

The Final Word
I find a great deal to appreciate about The Perfume of the Lady in Black -- its astonishingly effective score, its atmospheric cinematography, and its haunting depiction of a descent into madness -- yet it as a film never fully coalesces for me. The film is widely considered to be one of the great Italian psychological thrillers, though, so this review would seem to be an outlier. Further viewings may prove to be more enlightening as this admittedly marked my first and only time through. Less open to interpretation is the film's sub-standard presentation on Blu-ray, ravaged by excessive CRT noise and inept compression. Established admirers of The Perfume of the Lady in Black may find the more appealing aspects of this disc to sufficiently outweigh the bad, particularly at the reasonable asking price of $19.99 from all the usual suspects. I cannot recommend this as a purchase sight-unseen to the uninitiated, however. Rent It.
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