The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Francesco Barilli, 1974)

Sylvia is haunted by the images of a black-clad woman and a small child. As the images increase in frequency and violence she finds herself slipping into madness, a madness that accelerates when those close to her start to die.

Like Malastrana, Perfume has a lot of elements in common with Giallo but is far from a conventional example. It is more lurid than Malastrana, featuring sex and violence that is more graphic though only in fits and starts. The main thrust of this movie is not gratuitous gore shots and nudity but a woman'a descent into madness.

This relies heavily on a strong central performance and Mimsy Farmer delivers. Her mental unravelling is subtle and she manages to avoid any overblown theatrical hysterics. Even at the end, when her madness drives her to extreme actions, she never plays insanity but exploited fragility. Her penchant for wearing less than opaque clothing gives her an ethereal quality and genuinely makes her look vulnerable even in broad daylight, rather than it being an excuse for placing the female lead as a sexual object.

Her performance is aided by some exquisite cinematography. The lighting is beautiful and is never afraid to use colour or appear stylised while staying just on the right side of cartoonish. It also conspires with set design and camera to create great depths of space. Wide shots hold together immense detail while corridors, mirrors and windows allow for sets to roll on into the back ground. Sylvia moves through these spaces like a ghost, alone, even in the busiest of shots.

Sylvia's final moments on screen are everything you could want from a horror movie. They are a wonderful subversion of what came before without coming out of left field (if you've been paying attention that is), they make enough sense without leaving some elements to ponder and, more than anything, they are so shocking that on first viewing I'd reached the end of the credit roll before I mind snapped back into the room.

Perfume is a slow burner but one that keeps you gripped. It look incredible, features a brilliantly subtle central performance and a finale you'll want to talk to people about but won't be able to. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking.


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