The wonderfully ornate title of Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume Of The Lady In Black refers to something simultaneously specific—an image of the heroine’s late mother, reflected in her bedroom mirror—and intangible, a scent that’s pungent and evocative, but nonetheless a vapor. That’s the film in a nutshell: Hard to comprehend in its particulars—what’s real and what unreal, how the past and present relate to each other—yet suggestive of a nightmare that’s partly a manifestation of a woman’s madness and partly justified paranoia about the people around her. Devotees of Italian giallos will recognize The Perfume Of The Lady In Black for its labyrinthine plotting, its operatic sense of style and melodrama, and the lurid sexuality and bloodletting that’s amplified as it goes along. Yet the film owes just as much to early Roman Polanski classics like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, which emphasize their heroine’s terrifying isolation and the menacing encroachment of her neighbors.
It’s a slow-burner, though, ambling through a first hour that’s short on horror atmosphere and long on muddled, conflicting information. A pretty blonde of the Hitchcockian variety, Mimsy Farmer stars as a chemist whose devotion to her job creates tension with a boyfriend (Maurizio Bonuglia) who doesn’t seem to care much for her anyway. In fact, most of her friends and neighbors alternate kindnesses with sinister gestures; in one scene, a few of them force her into a session with a medium, and seem pleased when the experience traumatizes her. But Farmer isn’t entirely the victim here. As she’s visited by ghosts from the past, including herself at a younger age, it’s revealed that she was responsible for a terrible crime, and that those impulses may not have disappeared entirely.
The pile-up of strange incidents and outright hallucinations make The Perfume Of The Lady In Black nearly impossible to comprehend in the end, and frustrating in those dead spots where Barilli doesn’t supply enough style to compensate. (Though Nicola Piovani’s gorgeous music-box score does a lot of the heavy lifting.) But once Farmer’s past trauma and mounting paranoia converge and intensify, the film goes thoroughly and delectably bananas, delivering the maelstrom of psychotic events it withholds for so long. It isn’t easy to determine where her hallucinatory fantasies stop and where real-world threats begin, but Barilli threads them together in a mad, vivid tangle.
Key features: A baffling liner-notes essay begins, “At the beginning of the sixties, following the success of Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski…” (it was released in 1968) and gets more confusing from there. But a half-hour featurette called Portrait In Black, built around a long interview with Barilli, helps provide some compelling background on the production.