Film Review: THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (1974) – directed by Francesco Barilli

Posted: August 6, 2012 in Film Reviews
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The term “giallo” is used more often than the phrase “my friend” at a shawarma restaurant and much like the latter, its overuse has gotten to the point where people seem to genuinely forget the origin of the term and what it’s actually applicable to.

To my understanding, what separates a “giallo” from your standard slasher or psychological thriller is the “whodunnit” motif. Classics of the genre such as THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and TORSO all have stories that involve a sense of mystery and intrigue surrounding a series of elaborate killings by a killer or killers, whose identity is revealed at the end. Another element identified with the “giallo” is the sense of fun that comes with trying to figure out who the killer is. However, much to my chagrin, I see reviewer after reviewer constantly label any thriller that comes out of Italy as a “giallo.” For example, Michele Soavi’s STAGEFRIGHT is often mistakenly referred to as a “giallo” when in reality, it’s clearly an ’80s slasher film as evident by the fact that we know who the killer is from the get-go. Another example is a film like Sergio Martino’s ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Why this film is considered a “giallo” is a mystery even Agatha Christie couldn’t write her way out of as there are no murders whatsoever. If anything, this is a film that owes more to Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY or THE MEPHISTO WALTZ given its plot about outside forces driving a woman insane for the purpose of serving a supernatural goal on the part of the conspirators who are responsible for driving her over the edge.

I bring all this up because Francesco Barilli’s THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is another example of a psychological thriller mistakenly referred to as a “giallo.” This is a big deal because people going into this film thinking they’re going to get an outlandish orgy of sex and violence set to a synth pop score are most certainly going to be disappointed. If anything, Barilli’s film is more Bertolucci than Edgar Wallace, which was one of the many surprising elements as I watched this film. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK stars Mimsy Farmer as Silvia Hacherman, an industrial scientist who is troubled by strange hallucinations pertaining to the tragic suicide of her mother. These aberrations grow more intense and horrifying to the point where they completely overwhelm Silvia and irrevocably distort her sense of reality.

This is one of those films that are spoken about in hushed tones of adoration and reverence. Much like LISA AND THE DEVIL and MULHOLLAND DR., two of the films it’s often compared to, THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is one of those films that completely abandons the standards of traditional narrative for a more lucid form of storytelling akin to automatic writing, where a writer produces work from his/her subconscious by simply writing what comes to mind at the moment, rather than consciously plotting out what’s going to happen. The only difference is that the aforementioned works by Mario Bava and David Lynch respectively are films fuelled with a magnificent sense of imagination and intrigue, whereas Barilli’s film is unfortunately a pedestrian affair by a schlocky filmmaker trying to make an art film. Throughout the piece, you get a sense that Barilli doesn’t quite know where to go with this. Is this a classy “A-film” that is trying to make a sincere effort in portraying a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown or is this venturing into the trashy realm of the “B-film” where sex and violence reign supreme? The twist ending seems to come out of left field given the art-house feel of the picture and comes off as being completely out-of-place. It also doesn’t help that the film stars Mimsy Farmer, who bless her heart, isn’t the most gifted of actresses out there. She doesn’t have the range of Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY’S BABY or the physical beauty of Edwige Fenech in ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, both of whom played characters that Farmer’s is clearly patterned after.

I don’t regret watching this film as it is one of the well-known titles in the Italian horror library and I’d be lying if I said the film is completely terrible. It is fairly well shot and there are some sequences where I was genuinely absorbed. But the film takes too long to really get going and by the time it does, you just feel exhausted followed by a sense of disappointment at the tacked-on ending that was simply included for its shock value.

Thanks to Exploitation Retrospect.

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