Francesco Barilli, 1974
Starring: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Aldo Valletti, Donna Jordan
Sylvia’s life is beginning to unravel. After she sees a picture from her childhood and is forced by her friends to sit through a séance, memories from her childhood begin to haunt her. She sees the ghost of her mother in her bedroom mirror, a woman in black applying perfume. Is she losing her mind or is she the victim of a conspiracy? Those around her, including the infirm neighbor in her apartment building, another neighbor who claims to be her friend, and Sylvia’s demanding boyfriend all begin to act strangely towards her. Just as her paranoia and suspicion grows, a sinister man from her childhood starts following her around and a young blonde girl comes to visit one night. What is going on in Sylvia’s life?
This neglected Italian film is only loosely a giallo and delves far more deeply into the category of psychological horror. As with Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of theDark, the central plot revolves around a woman who may be losing her mind or who may be the victim of a cruel conspiracy involving those closest to her. As with ‘70s horror films like All the Colors of the Dark, The Corruption ofChris Miller, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, this is largely concerned with the effects of a past trauma on a woman’s adult life. Sylvia’s father drowned, her mother was raped, and later died suspiciously (she possibly committed suicide). Sylvia was likely abused by her mother’s aggressive lover. A photograph kicks off painful memories of the past and soon she begins to smell her mother’s perfume, which triggers her psychosis.
There are dream sequences (it is impossible to tell whether these are waking hallucinations or actual dreams), lapses in time, a hint of the ghostly and the supernatural, and a double: Sylvia’s younger self who comes to play. It’s impossible to concisely describe this film, though you will absolutely love it if you enjoy the works of David Lynch, surreal giallo or Italian horror films like Don’t Look Now, Lisa and the Devil, Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, KillBaby Kill, All the Colors of the Dark, and House with the Laughing Windows, or Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno, though it is probably most like a blend of Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant).
Stylish and disturbingly poetic, the film greatly benefits from Nicola Piovani’s impressive, melancholic score. There’s some lovely cinematography from Mario Masini that seems to have been somewhat influenced by Mario Bava, though perhaps that sort of comparison is inevitable. The film also benefits from some solid performances, namely from its lead. Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Autopsy) is excellent here as Sylvia, appearing in nearly every frame and running through the gamut of an unhinged female victim type: vapid, blank, confused, terrified, disoriented, reactionary, sympathetic, sexual, violent, etc. While she’s not the most memorable actress in Italian cinema, she’s perfect for this role. Farmer is American born, though most of her major performances were in European films. Ironically her nickname, Mimsy (her real first name is Merle) is from a line in Lewis Carroll’s Jaberwocky. The young Sylvia has a strong resemblance to Alice of Alice in Wonderland and the two Sylvias later reenact the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
The Perfume of the Woman in Black isn’t a perfect film and it won’t please everyone. It gets off to a slow start and builds carefully. The plot is frequently confused, turns in upon itself, and stumbles on a few early non-sequitors that don’t lead anywhere, but add to the disorienting, threatening mood. Examples of this are the scene where they discuss the presence of magic and witchdoctors in Africa, and when Sylvia cuts her finger on a tennis racket and her friend erotically sucks the blood off of her hand, to her disgust. What would feel like a normal scene – or most likely filler – in another film, has a menacing, unpredictable quality here.
The Perfume of the Woman in Black has been released on DVD from Raro Video, another in their increasingly impressive catalogue. I believe they also have plans to release it on Blu-ray at some point. The film comes highly recommended. It is far from predictable and is perfectly suited for multiple viewings.