Note: this review contains blatant spoilers.
Painter, occasional actor, and screenwriter Francesco Barilli made his feature film debut with this peculiar giallo that’s ostensibly about a young woman’s descent into madness, but as he explains in the interview featurette in Raro Video’s splendid DVD, the film is a hybrid of two ideas.
Barilli pitched the madness concept to the film’s producers, but as the script was developed with co-writer Massimo D’Avak, it morphed into an eerie story of a cult pre-selecting victims, driving the chosen ones to the brink of death, and feasting on their remains (with a few scraps going to lesser cult members, like a neighbour’s cats).
Perfume has giallo elements – at its core lies the oft-used device of a traumatic childhood event spawning murderous deeds – but like Death Laid an Egg (1968), it’s a concerted attempt to break genre conventions.
Stylistically, Barilli’s approach is to fade in and out of scenes like dream snapshots, and while each scene contains artfully drawn shots, there’s always a singular element that’s slightly off – sometimes a visual clue that randomly reappears, or character visages losing all signs of humanity when poor Silvia (Mimsy Farmer) turns away from what seemed to be a normal conversation.
No one in Silvia’s life appears to genuinely care for her well-being, including her supposedly long-suffering boyfriend Roberto (played by a very wooden Maurizio Bonuglia), and her grasp on reality becomes more tenuous when a past villain reappears in her life, as well as what may be a child version of herself who will not leave her alone.
Barilli persistently interpolates elements of voodoo and cannibalism throughout the film, but they remain ‘odd’ little moments until the film switches narrative tracks and goes from Silvia’s murder spree to her being victimized and sacrificed in the final reel. Upon first viewing, Perfume runs along like a fuzzy dream, and Barilla’s little visual and scriptorial touches don’t resonate until a second viewing, but the switch to the cannibalism story confuses the film’s perspective which had been presenting Silvia’s madness (and subsequent killings) as real.
Audiences will have make their own assumptions about what aspects of the final act are real, but it’s fair to presume Silvia’s child visitation stems from her delusional state as the cult piles on further stressors. Although Barilla consulted psychiatrists to flesh out Silvia’s mental degeneration, he also believes “Horror movies are never very logical,” so instead of providing a clichéd explanation scene at the end for the benefit of puzzled audiences, he leaves things unanswered.
Barilli’s directorial debut benefitted from high production standards, including superb locations, such as Silvia’s gothic apartment complex, and several striking abandoned relics: the childhood home where her mother entertained sailors on leave, and the remains of a shuttered subway station.
The set décor features less garish elements from the seventies, and are part of a clean visual design that dominates the film. Barilla’s sense of portraiture extended to some amazing colour schemes, and this may be the best evocation of a Mario Bava giallo. Silvia’s ominous nighttime apartment walks contain beautiful graduated colours, and this stunning transfer was made from a near-pristine print. Indeed, Perfume screams for a Blu-ray release.
In addition to the English dub track, the Italian track also comes with optional English subtitles, and Nicola Piovani’s score is in line with Ennio Morricone’s approach to gialli: a gentle, child-like music box theme, and a mass of screeching dissonance when Silvia’s grasp on reality starts to slip.
The bonus interview featurette with Barilli (in Italian, with optional English subs) covers most of the film’s production, although there’s no discussion of the main locations. Pity there aren’t samples of the campaign art in a stills gallery, nor the trailers to see how the film was sold to European and American audiences.
Barilli’s film career is quite small, but includes his screenwriting debut, Who Saw Her Die? (1972), and the cannibal classic The Man from Deep River (1972), both written with D’Avak. After directing the 1977 giallo Pensione paura, Barilla stepped away from film until a series of sporadic TV and documentary efforts.
Mimsy Farmer’s other giallo efforts include Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Armando Crispino’s misogynistic Autopsy / Macchie solari (1975).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan