Reminiscent of the 2011 crowd-pleaser Les Intouchables, Grégory Magne’s Perfumes is a charming, unconventional, odd-couple buddy movie of sorts, which crisscrosses an autumnal France with the highly cultured nose of sourpuss recluse, Anne (Emmanuelle Devos), in search of smelly solutions to her myriad clients’ needs.
And though he may be driving, her down-on-his-luck, warm-hearted chauffeur, Guillaume (Grégory Montel), is more or less just along for the ride. If this set-up sounds a little pretentious, ludicrous even, be assured that the resultant film is kooky and individual in a number of very good ways. However, in spite of two solid performances from its leads, unlike Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s film of nearly a decade ago, Perfumes, unfortunately, lacks the depth which saw François Cluzet and Omar Sy’s dynamic duo really soar.
Montel, who starred in Magne’s first feature L’air de rien in 2012, is a convincing everyman, and bears most of the – albeit limited – emotional stakes of this follow up as struggling single father, Guillaume. His cheeky ingenuity comes to the fore in an opening where quick-thinking creativity is needed to procure a post-swim vending machine Twix for his daughter, Léa (a terrific Zélie Rixhon, who is certainly one to watch for the future). But it’s back to reality with a bump in the following scene; in a judge’s office, Guillaume attempts to secure joint custody of Léa from his now-former wife.
Played with cringy, awkward humour, this is nonetheless a poignant justification of just how important retaining a job is for him. Montel’s clear comic capability does very well with Magne’s script, which is written with frequent wit and humour. Guillaume’s straight-faced, often confused and even irate reaction to the quirky belligerence and oddball requests of his newest client, Devos’ Anne – or rather ‘Mademoiselle Walberg’, elicits wry smiles more than belly laughs, but their growing affection for one another is a pleasure to watch.
In its snappy asides and small details, Perfumes really does succeed: the need for one of Guillaume’s fellow chauffeurs to watch out for dandruff on his black uniform; an ancient petrol station assistant lighting up a cigarette while filling up the tank; Guillaume – who becomes more an assistant to Anne than just her chauffeur – testing out his new-found nasal skills on bottles of shampoo at a supermarket. It’s a pity, then, that these moments of amusing human observation detract from real dramatic impact or profound character development, which are lacking.
For much of their travails by car and train, Anne is morose and largely solitary. Her entitled superiority, garnered from former fame for the likes of Dior before falling to the ignominy of creating ambient shopping small spray and masking the sulphurous smell of factories, is not really explored. Is having such a unique, and valuable, gift as being “un nez” more trouble than it’s worth?
Many will associate Devos most closely with her role in Jacques Audiard’s 2001 film Read My Lips, but the material here does not allow for any such magnetic performance. While it demonstrates elements of both a straight comedy and an affecting personal drama, Perfumes is caught between the two. As is so important for his central character, with a little more practice, and the right blend of ingredients, Magne will no doubt hit the right note in the future.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63