Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974)

The first time I smelled a woman's hair was magical. Before I go any further, this is not going to be some fetish article, so if that's your bent, prepare to be disappointed. Anyway, I was about eleven-years-old and attending a school dance (we had those back then). I recall wearing a white blazer with the sleeves pushed up and a pastel-colored shirt. My mullet was in full-swing at this time, which I'm sure is the only reason no woman would ever mistake me for Detective James "Sonny" Crockett. Nevertheless, I had worked up the nerve to ask a girl to dance (I'll spare her the ignominy of naming her), and she (having nothing better to do) accepted. I don't recall the song (it may have been "Cherish" by Kool & The Gang, but I was paying more attention to not stepping on my partners' feet), but with my head up close to hers, I caught a whiff of Prell and Aqua Net that stays with me to this day. Whenever anything even closely resembling those two smells wafts under my nose, I'm instantly transported back to that night. Granted, in the grand scheme of things it was a minor occurrence, but it's lodged in my memory like a wood tick.

Sylvia (Mimsy Farmer) is a young, successful, seemingly independent young woman. Her relationship with geologist boyfriend, Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), is bumpy, but seemingly not unworkable. Sylvia's trouble begins after dinner with some friends, where the conversation centers on black magic and superstition. The next day, Sylvia oversleeps and claims that she broke the glass from a framed photo of her and her parents when she was a child. Unbeknownst to Sylvia, she is being trailed by a mysterious man, and shortly thereafter, she espies the reflection of her mother spraying perfume on herself in a mirror. Sylvia's paranoia mounts, but how much is in her head, and what will be her ultimate fate?

The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (aka Il Profuma Della Signora In Nero) is a complex, nuanced, thought-provoking horror/thriller from co-writer/director Francesco Barilli. It is heavily influenced by the work of Roman Polanski, most notably Repulsion, The Tenant, and Rosemary's Baby, but it also bears a resemblance to Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Still, this is very much its own movie and is more accessible and thought-out that many genre films from Italy during this same time period. 

Conspiracies and paranoia lie at the heart of the film. We see Sylvia being watched by an enigmatic man, and when she drops her family photo off to be reframed, he runs in the shop immediately afterward to have a chat with the framer. Andy (Jho Jhenkins) appears at various times to grin nebulously in an "I know that you know that I know" manner. A vase which triggers memories of Sylvia's childhood disappears from the shop in which she spotted it, and the shopkeeper claims total ignorance of its existence. Seemingly everyone who has even a tangential relationship with Sylvia seems in on it. It's the mystery of "why?" that propels the narrative forward. However, it's the effect of the mystery on Sylvia's psyche that creates the film's emotional core.

It's obvious from the first time we see childhood Sylvia (Daniela Barnes/Lara Wendel) that there are issues in the family. As the film's opening credits roll, we see a tinted photo (the same one Sylvia smashes the frame of) of Sylvia staring sweetly up at her father, while her mother, Marta (Renata Zamengo), stares at the camera. As Sylvia recalls more from her youth, her memories encroach more and more into reality. This is shown cinematically by the inclusion and interaction of the adult Sylvia with the people from her past - in the same frame. If these scenes were blocked in a shot/reverse shot fashion, we could just say that she's hallucinating, but by having present and past together onscreen, it makes the threat more tangible and punctuates that Sylvia's world is changing. This will take yet another turn when Sylvia begins to interact with one of her memories in the present rather than as a representation of her remembrances (though it is that, as well).

The movie also contains a heavy reflection motif. The very first shot of the film itself (post credits) is of the water in a fountain outside Sylvia's apartment building. The water is roiled by toy boats scooting into frame. The idea of reflective surfaces and childhood/the past will carry on throughout the remainder of the film. The first time Sylvia sees her mother's "ghost" is in a mirror. Sylvia's apartment has large mirrors on almost every wall. Sylvia sits in on a session with a mystic in a room with multiple mirrors. As well as having reflective qualities, water also plays a large part in the film. Sylvia's dad was a seaman. Several scenes take place during thunderstorms. In her old home, Sylvia finds a fountain (now dried up) as well as a mosaic of a boat on water, which she places a cheek against. Because of her attachment to her father, water becomes a strong reminder of her past as well as a symbol of mental erosion and tumultuous emotions.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland provides yet another touchstone for the movie. Sylvia is reading Carroll's work. Andy provides a subtle reference to the White Rabbit when he states, "It's later than I thought." Later in an effort to center herself, Sylvia quotes from Carroll, "Life, what is it but a dream?" These allusions then extend to Sylvia's psychosis when she sees herself as a young girl, the hallucinatory, dreamlike aspects crisscrossing, ultimately creating a whole new role for Sylvia to inhabit.

There's very little in this film with which to quibble (and much, much more to discuss). That said, the biggest (and I hesitate to use this term) misstep is that this feels like two movies converging. On one hand, you have the conspiracy story. On the other, you have the descent into madness story. The two don't always mesh, and the final scenes create several questions that remain unanswered (for good or ill). Not to mention that the final twist feels so divergent (even though it has been foreshadowed earlier in the narrative), you feel as though you've just been smacked with a wet sock. And yet as the film fades out, you cannot help but feel somber, astonished, and satisfied simultaneously. Even without the sense of smell to spark it off, The Perfume Of The Lady In Black will live in your memories for a long time to come.

 MVT: Barilli herein has crafted a movie loaded with style, revolving around interesting characters, and showcasing an interesting, multi-level story that invites repeat viewings.

Make or Break: The "Make" is the scene where Signor Rossetti (Mario Scaccia) stops by Sylvia's apartment. He seems fine, but there is a drop of blood on his right shoe, and we just know there's something going on. I was instantly reminded of an interview I saw with artist Bernie Wrightson (most famous for his work with horrific subjects, notably the "Swamp Thing" comic book) years ago. When asked what his definition of horror is, he described a man standing on a sidewalk, waiting for a bus. Everything about the man is perfect, except there's a spot of blood on his shoe. Maybe Mr. Wrightson saw this movie? Either way it's a strong image, and I think it elicits more terror than all the graphic violence in the world ever can.
Score: 8/10


  1. Thanks for reviewing, this movie is one of the greatest gialli/horror films of all time and is deserving of all the praise it receives. I didn't have a problem with the ending, although I don't understand it enough to explain it either. Love the look of the film, and Mimsi Farmer and the score...OK I'll shut up now.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Shiftless.

    Agreed, more people should see and love this movie. I don't know how it flew under the radar for so many years.

  3. I friggin' LOVE this film. And nice work finding that poster. I'd never seen that one before. Mimsy rules.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard. I'm not Mimsy's biggest fan, personally (though she is a very good actress), but I'm slowly warming up to her more and more.

  5. Sounds like an overlooked gem, this one. I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of gialli but yet I've never heard of this one. Great review, Todd! Also, I'm a little disappointed that your story about smelling hair didn't go in a much more perverted direction, but that's OK.

  6. Thanks for reading, Aaron. I didn't want to put off too many people with the full-bore version of the hair-sniffing (it got a bit too scatological toward the end). ;)

    I think anyone with even a tangential interest in giallo should check this out, and I'm sure you'll love it.

    The company that released it on DVD in America (Raro Video) seems to be a company to keep an eye on (can't wait until they start doing blurays).

  7. nice opinion, thanks for sharing...