In Francesco Barilli’s Il profumo della signora in nero (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, 1974), the lonely, central figure of Silvia is played by American actress Mimsy Farmer. Not only does the character of Silvia draw heavily on Carroll’s Alice, Farmer’s own stage name was taken from ‘Jabberwocky’, a nonsensical poem in Through the Looking-Glass in which the word ‘mimsy’ is a combination of ‘flimsy’ and ‘miserable’. The poem provides curious parallels to the film: both are concerned with mirrors and reflections. The poem can only be read when it is viewed in a mirror. Additionally, its themes of violence and death are integral to Farmer’s Silvia, who ultimately succumbs to them both throughout the film.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black is an eerie tale of a woman’s descent into madness in a lonely Italian apartment building as her past returns to haunt her – perhaps quite literally, in the form of her mother’s ghost. This underrated film, which belongs to Barilli’s limited genre output, is generally forgotten alongside the work of more celebrated Italian horror directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. It can be loosely considered a giallo, but has more in common with nightmarish Italian genre films like Lucio Fulci’s Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) or Sergio Martino’s Tutti i colori del buio (All the Colors of the Dark, 1972), which combine themes of repressed trauma and psychological horror with giallo tropes and centre on unstable female protagonists.
Silvia is an overworked chemist tormented by memories of her long-dead parents: her absent father who died at sea, and her mother’s (Renata Zamengo) violent death, perhaps instigated by a rape. The fracturing of Silvia’s reality coincides with the accidental shattering of a family photo, and soon she begins to see her mother’s leering, black-clad ghost in mirror reflections. Silvia is also visited by a young blonde girl (Lara Wendel from Argento’s Tenebre) who tells her that she is surrounded by evil. It’s no coincidence that the girl resembles childhood photos of Silvia; both look remarkably like illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who winds her way throughout the film. Silvia enters her own Wonderland of sorts: glass, mirrors, reflections and doubling play a vital role in Barilli’s film, in which Silvia confronts her past – and her internal trauma – in the form of the young girl who is revealed to be her childhood self.
Mirrors serve as the gateway to Silvia’s other world within the film, though Barilli is intentionally vague about whether this is a supernatural tale, the story of a woman going mad and descending into violence, or a riff on Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight (1938) – adapted to the screen by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and George Cukor in 1944 – where a woman’s husband slowly, subtly begins to isolate her and drive her mad. Mimsy Farmer played a number of these fragile characters pushed to the brink of madness, as in Dario Argento’s 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971) and Armando Crispino’s Macchie solari (Autopsy, 1975). In these roles, her characters are intimately connected with violence, childhood trauma and abusive parent–child relationships.
Of course, in Carroll’s work, appearances are often deceiving, and even Alice herself is sometimes conflated with the monstrous natural world of this fantasy dimension, which inevitably transforms her. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there’s a passage where a pigeon mistakes Alice for a snake, a predator out to devour its eggs. She protests, somewhat unconvincingly:
‘I’m a little girl,’ said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through.
Not coincidentally, Barilli’s film becomes overwhelmed by images of artificial, contained nature as Silvia’s madness encroaches: manicured public parks and sculpted fountains give way to a trip to the city zoo; she visits a taxidermy shop and her boyfriend’s (Maurizio Bonuglia) flat is crowded with framed and preserved animals and insects. Flowers and plants choke the second half of the film; they are literally represented or appear as decoration, upholstery, and even as a tattoo on the hand of a psychic medium who allegedly communicates with Silvia’s dead father.
Young Silvia has an implicit connection to this unreal natural world. Through her appearance – and the adult Silvia’s love of Alice in Wonderland – she’s linked both to Carroll’s Alice and to other cinematic depictions of monstrous blonde girls appearing in Italian films like Mario Bava’s Operazione paura (Kill, Baby, Kill, 1966) and Fellini’s ‘Toby Dammit’ segment of the Edgar Allen Poe-themed anthology film Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead, 1968). Notably, all of these girls bear a remarkable resemblance to John Tenniel’s original illustrations of Alice that accompany Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
And though Carroll’s Alice is never overtly monstrous, Through the Looking-Glass is steeped with imagery of death and loss. In the prologue, Carroll writes:
Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread
With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!
Throughout the story there is a subtle implication that Alice’s maturation, which will take her inevitably into adulthood, will also result in death – the end of innocence and childhood, but also a literal death. The Perfume of the Lady in Black and Barilli’s later Pensione paura (Hotel Fear, 1977) take this theme further by presenting a vivid link between sex and death. In these two films, sex is never presented as an act of love or intimacy; it is unerotic, even grotesque, and is often a trigger for repressed trauma that leads inevitably to violence. And in both films – as with All the Colors of the Dark, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D Hancock, 1971), or La corrupción de Chris Miller (The Corruption of Chris Miller, Juan Antonio Bardem, 1973) – the surprising conclusion reveals that Silvia’s madness is effectively a red herring. She is suffering from very real psychological horrors, but they are used in a conspiracy to push her to an act of violence, in this case suicide. Like Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy – Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), all exploring female madness and delusion – there is the convergence between external persecution and internal horror: guilt, anxiety and repressed trauma manifest into the physical world.
Despite The Perfume of the Lady in Black’s disorienting conclusion, in which a cannibalistic cult has goaded Silvia into suicide to use her as a human sacrifice, the film’s primary antagonist remains the Alice-like young Silvia. She aggressively asserts herself in Silvia’s world, marking a psychological return to childhood for the protagonist, who eventually stages the Mad Hatter’s tea party at young Silvia’s insistence, filling the table with the corpses of the men in her life. Throughout the second half of the film, Silvia occasionally reads aloud from Carroll’s work, though one stanza in particular summarises the relationship between woman and girl:
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Silvia is unable to resolve this spectral force in her life. After goading her to visit the site of her assault as a child, an experience she is forced to brutally relive, Silvia’s younger self ultimately pushes her off the roof, and they fall together to Silvia’s death. In this sense, Barilli takes Carroll’s Alice to her most monstrous extreme. Young Silvia represents a morbid rejection of sexual maturity and stands as a physical manifestation of feminine sexuality as horror – resulting in a radical reinterpretation of one of the classics of children’s literature.