Monday, November 14, 2011

What's That Smell?

Ooh, ooh that smell
Can't you smell that smell?
Ooh, ooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you.

-Lynyrd Skynyrd

I can't quite figure out why Francesco Barilli's 1974 film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is so overlooked. Maybe it's because it was so hard to find for so long. Or maybe it's because it's so difficult to categorize. Or maybe it's because I'm the only guy in the world with a mad crush on Mimsy Farmer. Well, the good news is, it's no longer hard to find. It's currently playing on Netflix Instant Watch, but if you really want to view it in all its splendor, check out the RaroVideo release that's currently available for less than a sawbuck at Amazon. As to what category the film falls into, that's debatable. Most reviewers call it a giallo, and if it is, it would fall into the same borderline psychological horror territory as The House with Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls or Footprints on the Moon. It has horror, even occult elements, but it also has a distinct giallo feel. The first time I viewed it, I kept expecting a black gloved killer to pop up and take out poor ole Mimsy Farmer's character Torso-style. But the film also has more than a bit of an art house quality to it. It is stunningly beautiful with a soundtrack to match. Further, the story is a bit opaque with flashbacks and patchwork dreamlike sequences that may, or may not reflect reality. A lot of reviewers have likened the film to Polanski's work, at least in terms of story and tone, but I think it's much closer to Aldo Lado's films. In visual style, it comes close to Argento's best - yes, it looks that good - with striking colors and recurring geometric patterns that make it a feast for the eyes. Mimsy Farmer's bedroom, for example, may be the bluest room I've ever seen on film. In fact, I'd love to see the blue in this film fight it out with the red in Suspiria in a no-holds-barred death match of rich color. The attention to detail by Barilli, to color palette alone, is quite impressive and often makes the film appear to be a moving work of art. Couple this with the visual geometry the director displays in tunnels, passageways, staircases and other architecture and the eye candy just keeps coming.

If the visual highlights aren't enough, there's a fantastic original score by Nicola Piovani. The main 'music box' piece sounds like a cross between The Exorcist's Tubular Bells and Goblin's Suspiria theme. And aside from one overly loud sting, the music is pretty subtle and unobtrusive, effectively creating a moody, dreamlike tone without being too noticeable.
And finally, there's Mimsy Farmer. Setting aside my crazed love for her gappy teeth, bleached hair and Jabberwocky name, I can objectively say she puts in a career performance in a very beefy, complex part. Unfortunately, she worked in a time when a lot of second tier actresses were consigned to the wife or girlfriend stereotype and thus unable to strut their stuff. But Farmer gets the opportunity in this role and she makes the most of it. Her character's emotions have to run the gamut, and she does a nice restrained job, but also goes suitably nuts when required. In addition, she has to carry the film, not only because she's the central character, but also because there weren't any supporting characters who really drew attention or had charisma. And that's about the only criticism I have of the film. It really needed one or two standout creepy characters, like the sisters in Don't Look Now for example. The supporting actors do execute a workmanlike job, but there weren't any performances that sent chills up my spine (although there were certainly a few scenes not involving Farmer that did give me the willies).

I intentionally avoided talking about plot points and story in the post because I think this is a film better experienced than related. Farmer's character is a successful professional woman who starts experiencing some weirdness. That's about all you need to know going in, but be on the lookout for details that crop up here and there. The family photo shown at the outset is the first piece in the puzzle. The movie could definitely be off-putting to those not into symbolism and/or the ADD afflicted, as the pace is leisurely. But the film never bores as there's always another piece of the jigsaw around the corner to keep up interest and curiosity. What it all means, I'm not quite sure of, but that's part of the film's intrigue and definitely fodder for conversation afterward.

If the film is indeed a giallo, I need to redo my top ten list because it definitely belongs on it. But it works as a dream-like, psychological horror film as well that will haunt those who view it long after the experience.

Score 9/10

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