Wednesday 26 August 2020

Stop making scents: "Perfumes"

Grégory Magne's Perfumes is a comfortingly predictable divertissement: you'll know exactly which way it's heading inside the first ten minutes, but it's steered by such skilful, charismatic performers that it's no chore to sit back and go along on the ride. Part of that predictability stems from the effort Magne expends in those opening moments to establish his male lead as a hapless schlub in need of a break, a fresh start and a woman's touch. We join Guillaume (Grégory Montel) failing to retrieve a Twix from a leisure centre vending machine; it's not long before we learn he's got his work cut out to secure joint custody of his daughter, and that he's just three points away from having his licence suspended, not ideal for a man employed as a chauffeur. His next, fateful gig will be driving for the flamboyantly announced Mademoiselle Walberg (Emmanuelle Devos), a renowned parfumier who's already driven three of Guillaume's colleagues to distraction. They're both of a certain age, both are sitting in the same car during this grand tour of France in search of new smells; Walberg is such a maverick that she insists on sitting upfront alongside her driver. Why wouldn't they form a bond of some kind? Sometimes the pleasure of a movie lies in its inevitability: it can be like a chemistry experiment where you're guaranteed a favourable outcome.

Granted, Perfumes initially requires the viewer to hold their nose in the face of several honking great implausibilities. Guillaume winds up serving not just as La Walberg's driver, but her PA (scribbling down notes on new niffs during a detour to some caves), her bodyguard (entering the fray and seeing off an attacker after an attempted mugging outside her front door) and even her chef at one point, and you can't help but think someone of this lauded standing would have personnel in place to fill all those roles. (As it is, her only human contact outside the car comes through her agent, and - as I did - you may find yourself thinking: hold on, parfumiers have agents?) Notice, however, the generous whiff of subversion Magne spritzes over this project. For once in a romcom, we're watching a woman redesign a man to better suit her needs - or, rather, we're watching her refine him. When called into a leathergoods firm to sniff out problems with some badly tanned handbags, the perfumer's stated aim (namely to "get rid of that aggressiveness, make it smoother, more agreeable") sounds awfully like her plans for her chauffeur. The film's first half is a makeover montage in slower motion, only this time it's a bloke who's being spun around and spruced up. Montel, one of several fortysomething actors competing for the title of the French Ruffalo, lends Guillaume a distracted, put-upon charm; he's not the worst catch in the world, he's just getting a little frayed and fuzzy at the edges. It happens to us all.

And who better to tidy him up than Devos, the Catherine Deneuve someone thought to take out of the display cabinet? The actress leaves us in no doubt as to Mademoiselle Walberg's expertise - she looks as though she knows what she's doing amid the film's red-hot pipette-and-blotter action - while scattering a few question marks about the character's tendency to treat other people like bad smells. Had Perfumes been made in another territory - the UK, possibly; the US, definitely - Magne would have faced pressure to sex matters up, or at least to surround his essentially middle-aged leads with younger, fresher, poster-friendly faces. In France, however, they lean into maturity, and the easy companionship it can bring. The leads here are supplemented by nice, lived-in, characterful work from the director-performer Gustave Kervern as Guillaume's dispatcher, operating out of a Chinese restaurant (while slowly eating most of its stock) and his near-lookalike Sergi Lopez as the debonair doctor who comes to our heroine's aid after she develops third-act anosmia. (The worst kind.) In August 2020, might that development be too Covid-close for comfort, or are we being as sensitive as Mademoiselle Walberg's nostrils? Worry not. With its now oddly nostalgic scenes of crowded bars and high-end restaurants, Perfumes presents as a gift for those of us missing Paris: lovingly wrapped, delicately but appreciably scented.

Perfumes is now playing in selected London cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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