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Redeeming… The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Redeeming is a common practice in the art world, where controversial and derided works of art are, through artistic gestures of recuperation, placed in a new context. Matt Rogerson looks at a number of genre films from the peak years of exploitation and considers whether the passage of time places these films in a new artistic light.

SYLVIA HURT HERSELF: Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady In Black (1974)

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is characterised by Simon Abrams as “a weirdly ethereal and hard-to-classify horror film”. 1 Elsewhere it has been called a giallo (though it bears few of the genre’s hallmarks) and a psychological drama akin to those of Roman Polanski. In truth, Barilli’s film exists somewhere in the darkened space between genres, a macabre melodrama of sorts that relies on an unnerving atmosphere and surrealist flourishes. It is perhaps that the film is so difficult to categorise that, in discussions around the around value of the giallo as a genre, Barilli’s film is rarely mentioned. Instead, it is the stylized violence and Freudian trauma of Dario Argento, the fragmented, surrealist plots of Lucio Fulci, and the coda-setting oeuvre of Mario Bava that are discussed when critics attempt to determine the genre’s worth.

Sylvia Hacherman (played with a fragile, detached quality by the excellent Mimsy Farmer) is an industrial scientist who resides in a large, stylish apartment block, and lives what appears to be a very independent life. Sylvia is haunted, by strange noises at her mother’s graveside and by the notion of what has since become known as Truman Syndrome or Truman Show Delusion (after the 1998 Peter Weir film). There are hints of a conspiracy, perpetrated seemingly by everyone Sylvia comes into contact with, and of dark magic forces at work.

When considering the value of any giallo film, one must address the accusation that is frequently (and often, justly) levelled at the genre: misogyny.

What follows is Sylvia’s gradual but total psychological breakdown, as she stumbles through a series of barely connected, dreamlike sequences, plagued by her own abandonment issues and the spectres of her past. She is tormented by the vision of a child (who may well be her younger self), apparently suffers a violent rape at the hands of a man, and this “neurosis fuelled domino-like descent into madness” 1 ends in her suicide, as she throws herself from the roof of her apartment block.

With this in mind, the link between Barilli’s film and the giallo becomes more apparent: typically, in gialli, violence visited upon women (including sexual violence) is fetishized by the genre. The emphasis on the destruction of beauty, beginning with Mario Bava’s early giallo Blood & Black Lace, was at times meant to titillate audiences. The victims of gialli are typically sexually promiscuous women, often disrobed at the time of their murder, an act which itself has psychological underpinnings for the often traumatized male killer. In Perfume of the Lady in Black, Barilli opts for psychological violence rather than the straight razors of Bava’s killers, but this emotional terrorism is intrinsically linked to Sylvia’s sexuality (shown both in an awkward, not entirely consensual sex scene with her boyfriend Roberto, and the later rape, as well as an apparent act of voyeurism from her childhood).

When considering the value of any giallo film, one must address the accusation that is frequently (and often, justly) levelled at the genre: misogyny.

In her article Violence, mystery and magic: how to spot a giallo movie, critic and columnist Anne Billson lists misogyny as an inherent part of the giallo film. It is one of eight key traits of the genre, says Billson, 2 who also notes that female protagonists are sometimes victimised not by an individual but by an almost supernatural entity that may in fact have been willed into existence by their own fragile psyche. 2 Film Programmer Josh Saco argues that this is not necessarily the case, explaining that “amongst the fumbling plots and deceptive superficiality are leading women with complex motives and multidimensional characters”. 3 Saco cites examples including Edwige Fenech’s Julie Wardh (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, 1971), Florinda Bolkan’s Carol Hammond (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) and Dagmar Lassander’s Maria (The Frightened Woman, 1969). 3

In order to determine the worth of The Perfume of the Lady in Black, we must explore whether the film conforms to Billson’s description, or Saco’s.

Certainly, there is evidence that indicates a misogynistic intent on Barilli’s part. It is suggested that the shocking event that scarred Sylvia’s childhood might not have been rape: that this was a violent sexual act that Sylvia’s mother was a willing participant in. It is further suggested that younger Sylvia killed the man Nicola, leading her mother to take her own life. Barilli visits torment upon two generations of women in his film, each rooted in sexual violence and ending in death. In Sylvia, we have a character who appears to be held responsible not just for her own death, but for all the trauma visited upon her throughout the story.

While the more traditional giallo is known for its misogynistic tendencies, and for the fetishized sexual violence it commits upon its female protagonists and secondary characters, these films that exist upon the genre’s fringe can seem somehow worse. Mimsy Farmer’s Sylvia is subjected to physical and sexual abuse, but it is the emotional and mental abuse visited upon her that causes the deepest scars. As the film hurtles towards its predestined climax, Sylvia passively endures sustained psychological trauma, sexual violence, paranoia and an identity crisis that all lead to her ultimate destruction. Despite a labyrinthine plot, there is none of the familiar narrative signposting we are used to, and no sense that the stakes are raised at any point nor that Sylvia’s actions have in any way impacted upon the narrative. That Barilli’s film ends with her suicide suggests that, from the start, Sylvia was burdened with an inescapable fate. Also, it would appear that nothing has been learned in the process: not by the protagonist nor the audience. Does the film exist only to traumatise its lead, female character and to titillate its audience in a different way: by playing to a dormant desire in men to see women as lacking in agency, and therefore needing a male partner to ‘rescue’ them?

The relentless psychological and existential haunting of the central female in exploitation films may well be a tactic employed (consciously or otherwise) by male directors to awaken the ‘protector’ instinct in male audience members. As we come across these attractive yet apparently fragile women, it is the patriarchal programming of masculinity to come to the rescue of that which has long been painted as the weaker sex. In making their female characters endure greater and greater torment, so male auteurs ensure we identify not with the character herself but with our own programmed desire to watch over her and protect her from harm. If not overtly misogynistic, this is at least a misguided tactic, one both born of and one that reinforces and propagates the traditional gender roles of patriarchal society.

Certainly, upon initial interrogation, Barilli’s film does appear to bear many of the least satisfying hallmarks of the giallo: an apparent misogyny, a contrived, labyrinthine plot and a female character that will turn out to be culpable for her own downfall.

All art, however, is made to be redeemed, at least according to Ana Delia Rogobete. 4

Rogobete argues that “artistic gestures of recuperation” 4 whereby works once derided are placed in a new context by critics equipped with the knowledge accumulated over the passage of time, must be carried over from the wider art world to the film world. Rogobete looks specifically at Italian provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom, but the notion of redeeming can be extended to any works in the cinematic canon, and is perhaps of most use in the reappraisal of genre cinema.

And so what of The Perfume of the Lady in Black?

Is the film, now 46 years old, ripe for reappraisal? More importantly, given the film’s apparent misogyny and fetishized emotional trauma, what do female writers and critics make of Barilli’s film? Is there a new context to recognize, one made visible by the passage of time and that might help us to give fresh consideration to the film and its treatment of Sylvia? Could it be that her tragic journey means something more through a woman’s eyes? It is entirely possible that the film (whether by orchestration or fortune) contains more nuance than it is often credited with, that it may offer a number of significant caveats, specific stipulations that only become apparent when viewing the film through a female lens.

Stacia Kissick Jones comments upon a “visually overwhelming film” 5 , with its bold production design and constant use of multiple mirrors creating “recursive, flowery hellscapes” 5 and notes that Mimsy Farmer was the perfect American export to star in it, having “the kind of department store model looks…directors in Europe wanted to defile”. 5 What is most interesting about Kissick Jones’ experience of the film is her description of Farmer’s performance.

There’s an inner strength to her Sylvia that makes her one of the most sympathetic, reasonable and charming antiheroines to ever appear in a giallo. She’s composed, she’s tough, she looks like she had her reasons for everything she’s ever done, good or bad, and you’re willing to listen if she would only just talk to you about it, but of course she won’t, she’s not that kind of woman.” 5

Far from the passive, beleaguered, tortured soul lacking in agency previously described, Kissick Jones encounters an entirely different Sylvia. She recognises Sylvia’s agency and independence from her role as Head of Research & Development at a chemical lab, that she appears to lack sexual repression, is unwilling to spend each night partying with her boyfriend Roberto no matter how much he protests, and most importantly that when he leaves her she does not simply fall apart like many giallo heroines do without a man to prop them up.

Samm Deighan notes the influence of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, not least because Sylvia herself is very reminiscent of Carroll’s Alice, but also use of mirrors in both narratives, and specifically that “themes of violence and death are integral to Farmer’s Sylvia, who ultimately succumbs to them both throughout the film”. 6 Deighan describes Sylvia’s descent into madness as her entering a wonderland of her own, but one where her mind fractures along with her reality. At no point during Deighan’s discussion of the film is it ever mentioned that Sylvia might be lacking in agency, or taken advantage of by the machinations of the director. Rather, she notes that what happens to Sylvia is a result of her own trauma and her attempts to reconcile something that, ultimately, proves bigger than she is: “there is the convergence between external persecution and internal horror: guilt, anxiety and repressed trauma manifest into the physical world”. 6

Deighan explores Sylvia further with Kat Ellinger, noting that she displays none of the sexualized femininity one would expect from a genre film with a male gaze. 7 Ellinger agrees, noting that Farmer, despite an aura of fragility, convincingly portrays an industrial scientist and a woman with agency. 7 It is also noted that what is visited upon Sylvia is a trope used regularly in gialli with male leading characters: the protagonists of Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo and Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls both succumb in a similar way to Sylvia.

Further, Ellinger makes the excellent point that virtually every other character in the film is presented as suspect, as having an ulterior motive and not at all to be trusted. 7 Unlike in some gialli, Sylvia represents a female lead who is not being ‘othered’ by the director. What is visited upon her is viewed as emotionally resonant rather than fetish, and the film ‘others’ all the male characters in the film – her cruel boyfriend, her odd neighbour, her friend who indulges in witchcraft, and of course her mother’s rapist/lover.7 This of course bears fruit at the end of the film when, following Sylvia’s suicide, the peripheral characters are indeed revealed to be members of a blood cult, and that they ravenously devour her fresh corpse. Ultimately, Sylvia is a victim not of the director’s desire to exploit her, but of a severe form of gas-lighting perpetrated by the film’s men, all of whom are villains.

Perhaps the most remarkable artistic gesture of recuperation of Perfume of the Lady in Black lies with film writer, editor, programmer and founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, Kier-la Janisse. In her seminal autobiographical work House of Psychotic Women, Janisse discusses connecting with women in horror films (and, commonly, the neuroses of the ‘Woman In Trouble’) because of “something in myself. And that ‘something’ was decidedly female”. 8 (p7) Discussing Barilli’s film, Janisse notes that at the core of Sylvia’s trauma is an irrepressible paternal figure, in the form of her mother’s lover Nicola, but also in her controlling boyfriend, for whom Sylvia’s career as a scientist proves incompatible with her need to be loved. More than this, Janisse notes that this is a film where nobody is who they appear to be, including Sylvia, and that her on screen tragedies come from a childhood that reveals her to be quite psychotic, and a murderer.

Janisse not only understands and appreciates the complexities of the film (and of Sylvia’s character), she actively identifies with them. Sylvia’s obsessive work ethic; her idolization of an absent father; the possessions she surrounds herself with that signify a stunted emotional development; these and more are elements of Sylvia that Janisse sees reflected in herself through the film’s looking glass. In an incredibly powerful outpouring, she considers her own mother, and the irreparable damage done to her by her relationships with men. Janisse also notes how this impacted upon her own emotional development, as her mother attempted (and failed) to shield her from her own sexual maturation.

Janisse considers the power of absence: that it encourages the affected to fill that absence (a missing father in this case) with an idealized, fantasy version of the absentee, something both comforting and exotic to fill that void. An act that Sylvia has indeed perpetrated in Perfume of the Lady in Black that has shaped her character just as much as any tangible trauma.

This stunningly authentic consideration of the film, and of the character of Sylvia, is perhaps the most powerful form of artistic recuperation that can be applied to any work of cinematic art. That this film (and so many others) has helped Janisse to manage a lifetime’s worth of trauma and more carries with it a palpable resonance. That “we can find truth in that fiction”, 8 (p174) that in “revisiting some unpleasant territory” with the aid of these films, a person can learn the coping mechanisms they need to deal with their own trauma and can find aid in living their lives…this is without a doubt the greatest compliment this, or any film, can be given.

So it becomes clearer that the apparent patriarchal programming and misogyny in The Perfume of the Lady in Black is more complex than originally thought. While the near-constant trauma, the physical, sexual, emotional and existential abuse inflicted upon Sylvia may well appear to come from an inherently misogynistic place, it is only in considering the points of view of those who know such trauma, and of those who understand misogyny having been on the receiving end of it, that a complete picture appears. The experiences of Stacia Kissick Jones, of Samm Deighan and of Kat Ellinger, and those of Kier-La Janisse all paint a much more emotionally satisfying picture.

With the exception of Kissick Jones, who casually notes “a barely-there plot” 5 none of the aforementioned frame the film’s loose yet labyrinthine narrative as a negative aspect. Indeed, in revisiting the film it becomes apparent that film’s plotting, based in its relationship with Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, is integral to its power. Director Barilli would explain that his film was meant to explore “a world that chooses you, stalks you, makes you crazy and then eats you”. 9 Indeed, Barilli presents this world in his film, as from the beginning Sylvia struggles with the rigours of everyday life (most notably when she accidentally sleeps through an entire day), instead regressing into the nightmarish mosaic of her past trauma until it consumes her completely. The plot is a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to place the audience in the same emotional state as Sylvia, both to help us empathise with her and to better immerse us in the kaleidoscopic nightmare that he has created for her.

Rogobete considered that in the case of Pasolini’s Salò it is “the violence associating sadism and fascism in a re-creation that disaffects the eye of the beholder”. 4 It is only in connecting the film with the contemporary (something the director himself intended, as told to interviewer Alain Michel Boyer 4) that a true consideration of the film can happen, and a true decision as to the film’s artistic value be made.

In the case of Barilli’s 1974 giallo, it becomes apparent that the film has come to have a very powerful and positive impact on key female voices in the genre community, and that this constitutes a substantive reappraisal of the film, and goes some way towards redeeming the film as a very valid piece of filmic art.

VERDICT: REDEEMED

REFERENCES

1 Abrams, S (2011) DVD Review: The Perfume of the Lady in Black [online]. Available at: https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/the-perfume-of-the-lady-in-black/ [Accessed 8 April 2020]

2 Billson, Anne (2013) Violence, mystery and magic: how to spot a giallo movie [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10377468/Violence-mystery-and-magic-how-to-spot-a-giallo-movie.html [Accessed 8 April 2020]

3 Todd, M (2016) The Feminist Heroines of 1970s Giallo Movies [online] Available at: https://www.anothermag.com/design-living/8745/the-feminist-heroines-of-1970s-giallo-movies [Accessed 27 April 2020]

4 Rogobete, A D (2015) Not to be Reproduced: Pasolini’s Salò and the Question of Visual Arts [online] Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/pier-paolo-pasolini/salo-and-visual-arts/#fn-25846-1 [Accessed 26 April 2020]

5 Kissick Jones, S (2016) The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) [online] Available at: http://shebloggedbynight.com/2016/the-perfume-of-the-lady-in-black-1974/ [Accessed 19 April 2020]

6 Deighan, S (2018) All Mimsy Were the Borogoves: The Spectre of Lewis Carroll in Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) [online] Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/alice-in-wonderland/all-mimsy-were-the-borogoves-the-spectre-of-lewis-carroll-in-francesco-barillis-the-perfume-of-the-lady-in-black-1974/ [Accessed 19 April 2020]

7 Ellinger, K and Deighan, S (2016) Daughters of Darkness Episode 14: Footprints in Delirium: Exploring the Art Giallo, Part 3 [podcast] October 30. Available at: https://diaboliquemagazine.com/episode-16-footprints-delirium-exploring-art-giallo-part-3/ [Accessed 19 April 2020]

8 Janisse, Kier-La (2012) House of Psychotic Women. Godalming: FAB Press

9 Totaro, D (2011) Francesco Barilli’s Dual Gems: The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) and Pensione Paura (1977) [online]. Available at: https://offscreen.com/view/francesco_barillis_dual_gems [Accessed 8 April 2020]

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About Matt Rogerson

The son of a VHS Pirate, Matt was exposed to video nasties at a tender young age and soon became a macabre movie fanatic. A student of Roman Catholic messages in genre film, he enjoys tracing the genesis of religious themes throughout the history of horror cinema. He has bylines at Dread Central and Horror Homeroom, and is a regular contributor at LongLiveTheVoid.com. He is also an occasional screenplay writer and PAGE Award finalist. Matt’s first book ‘Porte Dell’Inferno – Lucio Fulci, The Vatican, and the Uncontainable Evil’ is a semi-academic exploration of the religious themes in the Italian director’s work, and is coming soon. 

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