The Perfume of the Lady in Black Review
Caution: Massive spoilers abound throughout this review.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black (or, to use its Italian title, Il Profumo Della Signora in Nero) is an interesting piece of work. Featuring elements clearly inspired by both Don't Look Now and Rosemary's Baby, it is one of many Italian pictures created in the 1970s in an attempt to cash in on the success of specific English-language genre pictures. The quality of such productions are naturally variable, since it's never a particularly good idea to begin a project with the intention of copying someone else's formula, but a number of them are at the very least intriguing, with a select few managing to be deeply engaging films in their own right - usually as a result of the inclusion of their own peculiarly Roman atmosphere. The Perfume of the Lady in Black falls into the latter category. Although a mere shadow of the films that inspired it, it is nonetheless a well-made and genuinely unnerving - if somewhat unfocused - piece of work.
Silvia Hacherman (Mimsy Farmer) is an industrial scientist who is completely devoted to her job. She has been going out with the handsome Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) for a little over four months, but he is understandably perturbed by the fact that she seems to value her work more than him. One night, while attending, with Roberto, a party at the home of a renowned African professor (Jho Jenkins), his discussion of voodoo rituals and human sacrifices seems to unroot a memory deeply buried within her psyche. She begins to hallucinate, seeing disturbingly vivid images of her mother, who died under uncertain circumstances. As the hallicunations become more frequent and more lifelike, Silvia begins to lose her grip on reality as her sanity slips away... Throw into the mix phantom girls, grisly murders, mysterious gift shops and a possible conspirary involving her boyfriend, and you have the makings of an incredibly baffling psycho-shocker that, while following some of the giallo genre's conventions, is too anarchic a piece to fit comfortably into that particular category.
The plot is very Rosemary's Baby, but the structure itself owes a good deal more to Don't Look Now, with past, present and future intermingling in a way that makes little sense until you review the entire film fully anticipating this. Of course, it is handled with nothing like the level of sophistication as that of Nicolas Roeg's seminal tale of Venetian horror, but it is nonetheless engaging to watch and manages to strike something of a chord. The crucial difference, in my opinion, is that while Roeg's film is remarkably well-constructed (if you don't believe me, read Mike Sutton's excellent review), The Perfume of the Lady in Black is nothing like as concentrated. Essentially playing out as a series of barely-connected vignettes, one gets the impression that the narrative is not actually meant to make sense. During and after the process of watching the film, I ran through in my mind several different possible theories as to what was meant to be happening, but none of them prove to be satisfactory. Basically, it comes down to whether you believe Silvia's friends conspired to do her in, or that she was completely insane and fabricated this in order to justify her killing of them. It's all completely baffling however you look at it, with certain key events contradicting each other. Of particular note is the fact that Silva is shown to kill several individuals who are later present, and very much alive, in the evisceration epilogue after she has plunged to her death. In this respect, her killing of them would seem to cancel out the conspirary element (it is made perfectly clear that she is completely out of her mind at the time, and it is implied that she has fabricated a number of other encounters with hostile individuals) but the finale would then appear to reaffirm it. It is possible to consider the finale, in which her nude corpse is laid out on a slab before a congregation of cannibals proceed to eat her internal organs, as a post-mortem continuation of whatever fantasy deluded her into believing, among other things, that her dead mother's former lover tracked her down and tried to rape her, but it doesn't rest well with me.
Nonetheless, it's an engaging and suitably unsettling exercise in psychological horror, with a focus on one of Italian horror's staple subjects: the connection between parent and child. Barilli, in no uncertain terms, points to an extremely deep link between Silvia and her mother, to the extent that, at times, Silvia assumes the identity of her parent. This is hinted at on a number of occasions, and is cemented when she puts on her mother's dress for the film's climactic scenes. Furthermore, the implication that her mother's lover also had his way with her further underlines their connection. Freudian symbolism is rife not just in gialli but in horror in general, and this is one of the finest (and most perplexing) examples of this phenomenon.
Above: three faces of fear - Barilli, Bava and Argento. Click to view large versions.
All of this is held together by Mimsy Farmer, who handles the role of Silvia beautifully, portraying her descent into madness with customary skill. A much maligned actor, Farmer's work has always impressed me, in particular because she seems to have been one of the few actors working in Italian genre movies in the 70s and 80s who genuinely believed in what she was doing. It's rare to find actors (especially female) with giallo connections who actually speak with any pride about their affiliation with the genre, but Farmer is one, and her dedication to her work shows in the roles she played. Usually portraying a flake or at the very least a harangued victim, she became quite accustomed to playing this part over and over again, most notoriously in Dario Argento's sadly unavailable Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and has become something of a "frantic female" icon for giallo cinema. She is actually a very good actor, and many consider this her best role. She also looks genuinely beautiful here, a far cry from her decidedly haggard turn a year later in Autopsy. Her casting is an obvious bonus to the film, and I very much doubt that it would have held up without her, as the focus is on her character for the duration of its running time, and none of the secondary characters are particularly interesting or well-acted. Admittedly, Donna Jordan provides some eye candy as Silvia's sexy best friend Francesca, and Mario Scaccia is puts in a decent turn as elderly neighbour Signor Rossetti, but this is definitely Farmer's film.
Although professionally photographed and featuring a fairly glossy sheen, the film lacks the customary visual flamboyance of other offerings in the genre. The lighting is largely naturalistic, a great deal of the action taking place during the day, and while the architecture on display is moody and atmospheric, cinematographer Mario Masini fails to make the most of it, with his lighting often coming across as surprisingly flat. The Parioli district apartment building in which Silvia lives was also used as a location by Mario Bava in The Girl Who Knew Too Much and by Dario Argento as the library in Inferno, and it is interesting to see how three different directors have shot and lit the same exterior in completely different ways. It would be fair to say that Barilli's version is the least visually arresting of the three. Of course, no-one is going to look good when placed alongside two of the greatest visual minds in the history of Italian cinema, but it goes to show that The Perfume of the Lady in Black does not stand up particularly well against its counterparts in Italian genre filmmaking. Thankfully, Nicola Piovani's melodic score, another element of the film owing a lot to Rosemary's Baby, is creepy enough to accentuate the much-needed sensation of dread that would otherwise have been absent.
Released through a small Italian company called Raro Video, this release of The Perfume of the Lady in Black - its debut on DVD - is clearly geared towards the export market. Everything includes optional English language options, right down to the case's inner sleeve, which dutifully translates its blurb and credits alongside the original Italian.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and has clearly been subjected to a heavy restoration process. Personally, I am not entirely keen on the overly smooth and decidedly digital look of the transfer, although I fully admit that others will probably be very pleased with it. The closest analogy I can think of is Warner's North by Northwest restoration which, while providing great colour reproduction and a decent amount of detail, no longer looks like a product of its era. Minor compression artefacts are visible on a number of occasions, but they should not be unduly troubling.
The audio quality is less satisfactory. Both the English and Italian dubs are provided, along with optional English subtitles that correspond to the Italian dialogue. This is probably the best way of watching the film, because the English track is of a poor standard, with noticeable distortion and low fidelity, synchronization problems and some genuinely laughable voice acting (I dare you to try taking anything Jho Jenkins says seriously). The Italian track isn't perfect, but it is a good deal better and is probably the best that can be expected.
The only major extra is a 23-minute documentary entitled "Ritratto in Nero". Taking the form of a lengthy interview with writer/director Francesco Barilli, it is a little unfocused, as he tends to ramble a bit and doesn't always explain himself coherently (although this could be the fault of the English subtitles), but it is an interesting piece nonetheless. One aspect of this feature that baffled me, however, was the occasional insertion of still photographs of a rather attractive, but unidentified, naked woman.
A biography and filmography are also provided for Barilli, in dual English and Italian.
An intriguing if incoherent and inconsistent slice of psychological horror, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is well worth seeing by anyone interested in Italian genre cinema. The DVD presentation is of a high standard, and the fact that it caters fully to English-speaking audiences should make it an attractive option.