Cast: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia
Running time: 101 mins
The lowdown: Memorable and mad “hysterical female” movie with a suitably verbose giallo like title, but owing a good deal more to Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Italian horror cinema icon Mimsy Farmer delivers her best performance as a woman being driven mad by… what exactly? Director Francesco Barilli co-wrote the tightly structured giallo Who Saw Her Die two years earlier. Here he allows the atmosphere to tell the story more than conventional plotting, creating a striking, lyrical and erotically charged neglected gem.
The full verdict: Although not a traditional giallo, The Perfume of the Lady in Black works as a distillation of all the elements that make that specifically Italian genre so brilliant.
Like Amer would do 35 years later, the film ditches the typical detective structure. Focusing instead on the psychological disintegration of the female protagonist, it makes the audience detective, employing recurring visual motifs and audio cues to provide clues to the mystery of what is driving poor Silvia (Farmer) insane.
As with the best Italian thrillers the answer may lie in a troubled past, memories of which are stirred when African business colleagues of Silvia’s boyfriend trouble her with talk of voodoo (complete with casual 1970s racism).
Visions of a woman in black dousing herself with perfume and Silvia herself as a child begin to send the fragile woman into a psychological spiral, blurring the boundaries of reality and fantasy for the audience as much as her.
Barilli employs subtle and not-so subtle visuals to suggest Silvia’s entrapment; the pinned butterflies her boyfriend Robert (Bonuglia) has mounted on the walls, a photo shoot in front of caged zoo animals with an elderly oddball neighbour (Scaccia).
An oft-spotted copy of Alice in Wonderland also betrays director Barilli’s intentions – his protagonist is going straight down the nearest rabbit hole in a movie where subtext is text.
Freudian theory gets an airing with a (un)healthy dose of the Electra complex in the script, while motifs such as dreams, disused houses and secret boxes also fit the plot like a snug pair of Freudian slippers.
All this is anchored in Farmer’s riveting performance, one of her many damaged women roles. Putting herself through the emotional and physical wringer, Farmer is electric as a woman with a Faberge egg mind, vainly attempting to protect herself against numerous aggressors, real and imagined.
Visually one of the 1970s most arresting thrillers, Barilli and renowned cinematographer Mario Masini (Padre Padrone) threaten their leading lady with odd framing, aggressive décor and unnatural lighting (in one memorable moment Silvia walks through a darkened apartment while an unnerving green light pulses outside).
And while traditional storytelling goes out the window, The Perfume of the Lady in Black possesses its own weird logic. Although even this is smeared by a final act shock straight out of a Lucio Fulci movie that answers minor questions posed earlier, but raises new ones as the closing credits roll.
A series of bloody hatchet murders give audiences wanting a standard thriller something to keep them quiet.
Some will still bemoan the languid pace, dreamlike visuals and erratic nature of the lead character. Others will succumb to the film’s odd other worldliness and recognise it as classic example of 70s Italian filmmaking.