A doyenne of French cinema teams up with a relatively new French filmmaker and the result is something entirely French and entirely charming. Perfumes (or the more French Les Parfums) is a sort of grown up, platonic rom-com, the contemporary story of two lost souls who very much shouldn’t like each other but end up working very well together, their unlikely friendship helping each of them evolve in exactly the ways neither of them realized they needed. Emmanuelle Devos, she of nearly 90 acting credits to her name and a two-time César Award winner, brings a breezy sense of authority to Anne, a “nose” who once crafted signature scents for the likes of Dior but is now, after a bit of trauma, relegated to crafting perfumed air for department stores and tourist attractions. Grégory Magne is the writer/director who’s created Anne and all her uptight energy, as well as Guillaume Favre (Grégory Montel, “Call My Agent”), the newly separated chauffeur scrambling to get his life together so he can earn joint custody of the 10-year-old daughter he adores. The two cross paths when Anne needs a driver to he r next job, crafting a scent to replicate the smell inside an ancient cave that will soon be replicated for the public to visit and enjoy. Each with their own obstacles and weaknesses, Anne and Guillaume prove a sort of charming odd couple that finds us invested not only in their individual journeys but in their one together as well.
If the film stumbles a bit at the beginning it’s only because Magne chooses to start things by focusing on Guillaume, establishing his status as a newly single dad who’s struggling to adhere to the custody judge’s expectations: a reliable job and a flat big enough to allow Léa (Zelie Rixhon) to have her own room when she stays with him (which his current studio doesn’t). He works for a car service run by a wanna-be mafia boss who holds court at a local Chinese restaurant; when he arrives to get his assignment for this day, the boss has withheld his keys. Guillaume, it seems, has logged a couple more points (infractions) against his license, an issue that won’t fly when you’re a professional driver. But the boss relents when Guillaume reminds him about his custody issues, and soon he’s knocking on Anne Walberg’s door to let her know he’s there to, well, chauffeur her around. This delay in meeting Devos’s Anne is forgiven as the film progresses and we get to know her quirky, defensive ways through Guillaume’s disbelieving eyes. From sitting up front with him (because her case with all her vials of scents and essences is settled securely in the back seat) to expecting him to be everything from negotiator to assistant to housekeeper on their first professional encounter, Guillaume is more than a little put off and doesn’t mind saying so. But he needs this job, and Anne knows it.
Soon, she’s requesting only Guillaume for her subsequent jobs, and as we get to know Anne better, we learn why she sticks with what works once she’s found something she likes. Her manager, Jeanne (Pauline Moulène), is a bit of a pitbull, albeit a charming one; she’s constantly pushing Anne to take jobs she doesn’t want and insisting she’s doing her best to support the perfumer’s floundering career. As a woman used to relying on her senses for her livelihood, Anne trusts her gut implicitly, and her gut has a good feeling about Guillaume, even if he’s not so convinced about her. The two begin reluctantly bonding, if only as a side effect of spending a significant amount of time together; she tells him about her career upswing and quick demise and he tells her about his ongoing struggle to connect with his pre-teen daughter. Their connection, if fraught at first, becomes something genuine and organic as each of them let their very well-fortified guards down with the other; similarly, their work together begins to evolve, evidence of the trust each is willing to place in the other over time.
Perfumes only marks filmmaker Magne’s second feature film, and only a cynic would see in its winsome story something trite or insincere. Devos takes Anne on a subtle journey of discovery, learning through her friendship with Guillaume just what might be possible if she dares to open up even the slightest bit; the actor also masterfully imbues Anne with mannerisms and affects that create a whole picture of a woman who’s been through quite a bit, personally and professionally, over the years. Anne’s way of breathing in the world, naming everything in terms of its aromas, is as inherent to her character as is the color of her eyes, the practice being as much what’s earned her a living as it is her way of understanding the passage of time and the world around her. Montel holds his own alongside such expertise, a man finding his footing in this new version of his life and not the least interested in dealing with Anne’s shit if he doesn’t have to. But like her, his willingness to open up to something new turns out to be exactly what gets him to where he wants to be, and it’s wonderful to witness.
A film like Perfumes might not mean a lot to many people, but it’s one I’m glad to have discovered in the midst of a tumultuous time in all our lives; certainly, the concept of losing one’s sense of direction (or sense of smell, literally) is one many can relate to over the last year and change. What Magne creates so endearingly here is a sort of modern parable intended to reassure all of us (or at least me, I suppose) that this moment may be uncomfortable and what’s behind us (and ahead of us) might be scary, but there’s always, always, always a way forward if we’re willing to embrace it.
Perfumes is now available at virtual cinemas, including at Music Box Theatre.
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