Yvonne’s Perfume Review

In the second of three reviews, Nat Tunbridge looks at Second Sight’s DVD of Patrice Leconte’s classic slice of French nostalgia, ‘Yvonne’s Perfume’.

Based on the novel Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano, Patrick Leconte’s 1994 film ‘Yvonne’s Perfume’ represents a highpoint in his career to date, a delicious, spellbindingly erotic slice of nostalgia combining sensuous photography, a brilliant soundtrack and a trio of pitch-perfect performances. Less whimsical and slight than ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’ (which Leconte wrote himself), ‘Yvonne’ doesn’t compromise any of that film’s brevity. Whereas in ‘Hairdresser’ one had the sense that Leconte was, at times, simply filling screen time with entertaining but ultimately extraneous characters and events, the narrative here is much more focused and contained and its culmination more dramatically satisfying.

Geneva. 1958. Young idler Victor Chmara (Girardot) is spending the summer practising his signature, reading magazines and avoiding any involvement in the Algerian War. A chance encounter in a hotel lobby brings him into contact with the aspiring young actress Yvonne (Majani) and her flamboyant friend and mentor Dr Rene Meinthe (Marielle). Victor is swept into their world of parties and extravagant social events, and he and Yvonne fall in love. However, he soon discovers that neither of his new friends are quite what they seem to be, and the Doctor’s mysterious ‘errands’ involve him in a spiral of circumstances that seem destined for a tragic end…

The beginning of ‘Yvonne’s Perfume’ is quietly remarkable. Twelve scenes, inset into the body of the frame as if they were photographs, pass in rapid succession before our eyes, like fragments of memory: a villa in the country, a ferry ploughing across a blue lake, a hotel bedroom before and then after someone has stayed there, and so on. As soon as the twelve scenes have passed, our viewpoint switches: the camera is passing at high speed over water, accompanied by urgent, slightly discordant music. As the titles run, so the camera tilts up very slowly until we see we’re gliding over the surface of a lake or huge inlet. Gradually the camera moves up and to the side, the music growing in intensity and complexity, until we see we’re keeping pace with a ferry, a huge red Swiss flag flying from its bow. Steadily the camera rises and moves towards the ship, taking in a beautiful young girl leaning on the guardrail, gazing out over the water. The camera moves towards the girl, the music growing to a climax. Suddenly it stops and we cut to an extreme close-up of the impassive face of Victor Chmara, his features lit by what seems to be firelight as his narration begins: ‘What remains today of that summer of ’58…?’

It’s a bravura opening, demonstrating a high level of technical accomplishment (the water-borne crane shot and abrupt editing) and a skilfully economical narrative, simultaneously challenging the viewer’s assumptions and establishing the film’s curious rhythm. Throughout, the film will switch between Victor’s recollections of the summer of ’58 and the ‘present’, a period several years later, when he revisits the town and meets up with Meinthe again (and I should warn that some, very slight spoilers follow below). The two narratives are knitted together with consummate skill, Leconte inferring, with more subtlety than in ‘Hairdresser’s Husband’, the communication between our past and future selves, the porous nature of time and the impossibility of ever truly leaving behind – albeit in rather a dramatic sense – a life-defining episode.

Yvonne and Renee’s involvement in the Algerian war is hinted at – each of them disappears at times to run mysterious ‘errands’ – but this is never developed into a major plot point. Neither is the narrator’s questionable identity: while he claims to be ‘Count Victor Chmara’, he checks for his mail under an entirely different name, suggesting that his aristocratic claims are false and, interestingly, that it is he who is the real actor and not Yvonne (an alternative interpretation is that he’s simply living under an assumed name to avoid the draft). Richard Bohringer appears in a telling cameo as Yvonne’s Uncle, who is direct with Victor about the likelihood of her ever becoming a serious actress.

An air of nostalgia permeates every scene. Leconte and Serra create an atmosphere so intense you can smell it (appropriate, given the title). In a stolen moment in the woods, Yvonne and Victor kiss for the first time, our view of them partly obscured by leaves and branches. There’s the sound of distant birdsong and the couple’s breathing. The gently undulating camera weaves a visual texture comprised as much from the things we can’t see as the things we can, as much from silence as from music; the spaces between things and the things themselves.

The ‘Houligant Cup’ sequence, in which Dr Meinthe and Yvonne enter a bizarre fashion parade-cum-motor show, is sublime in a different way, an acidic portrait of bourgeois competitiveness that is nevertheless beautifully choreographed.

For the leads, Hippolyte Girardot is quietly compelling as the narrator Victor Chmara. The narrow face, constant ironic half-smile and air of intellectual intensity mark him as a classically French anti-hero in the same vein as Marcel Herrand, who provided us with perhaps the definitive French screen villain as Lacenaire in ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’. Girardot’s performance never strikes a false note, laudable when you consider that his character is essentially a passive observer to the film’s events, and not a terribly sympathetic character – Chmara is basically a moneyed loafer, idling his time away reading magazines in the sun to avoid military service. It’s to Girardot’s great credit that he implies layers of depth to the young man, such that it becomes impossible for us to dismiss him out of hand.

Jean-Pierre Marielle is magnificent as the dandified Dr Meinthe, an elegant, outrageous, flamboyant homosexual, always beautifully dressed and causing a scene, tossing wine into faces, hurling insults and crockery and then, a moment later, apologising with immaculate courtesy to the wounded party. Like a character out of a Lawrence Durrell novel, Meinthe knows everyone and is the life of every party but seems to carry with him, amidst the superb bluster, an air of self-defeat, as if unable to overcome an earlier event in his life. Marielle’s performance is brilliant, imbuing the character with pathos and somehow hinting at this wounded history, the source of his self-destructive nature. He’s also at the centre of the film’s funniest scenes, collecting Victor from his boarding house using techniques more suited to a commando operation (introducing himself to the assembled elderly guests as “The Queen of Belgium”) or simply publicly insulting another homosexual (“Carlton, the greatest bitch in the region! They say you’re up to no good, old tart!”) and then clapping his hands twice and shouting, “L’addition, s’il vous plait,” with impeccable Gallic authority, oblivious to the upset he’s caused. The fact that this is delivered while wearing a canary yellow jacket, immaculate white shirt and ceruse handkerchief in the breast pocket should not be overlooked.

The utterly beautiful Sandra Majani is the titular Yvonne and, fittingly, brings an elusive, ephemeral air to the character that is quite beguiling. While she’s not without experience, Yvonne is – as seen through Victor’s eyes – an innocent in love and her relationship with Victor accordingly has all the tenderness and vulnerability of a first love affair. However the truth of her character is more complex; a fantasist, Yvonne yearns for a life beyond the small town she’s grown up in, but lacks the drive or ambition to achieve it on her own terms. “I’m not a committed actress,” she confesses to Victor, when he suggests they move to New York so she can seek stardom. In some ways Majani’s performance is hard to assess, in that at times it doesn’t seem as if she’s bringing any kind of character to Yvonne at all, yet this very transparency is entirely in keeping with Yvonne’s nature; she’s ultimately a pretty shallow girl – as Meinthe points out at near the film’s end, Yvonne only lives for the moment and, as her uncle puts it, is both lazy and “…provincial.” Her air of mystery, then, doesn’t actually hide anything but is, rather, a cultivated affectation to make her more alluring – a quality incredibly close to the simple self-consciousness that infects dozens of mediocre actors! I can’t tell conclusively whether this quality of slightly glazed pretence is deliberate on Majani’s part or not. Given her previous status as a model and the fact that, to my knowledge, ‘Yvonne’ is her only film, I tend rather to think it’s not (sorry). However, that doesn’t negate the fact that she’s perfectly cast as Yvonne.

As in ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’, Leconte uses period music to summon up the feeling of a bygone age, accompanied by a beautifully written, elegaic score, this time by Pascal Esteve. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is acceptable and, while in a perfect world 5.1 mixes would always be provided, the dialogue and ambient sound effects – crucial in a Leconte film – are all clear and undistorted.

Second Sight has certainly prejudiced itself against me because of their shocking treatment of ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’ so I have to admit to being very cautious when I approached ‘Yvonne’s Perfume’. Without another, definitive version of the film to compare the image to I can’t be certain, but this picture does seem to be cropped, not as egregiously as ‘Husband’ but the compositions seem incomplete to me. Generally the picture is better than that of ‘Husband’; there’s less visible gunge, the colours are stronger and the skin tones truer. The film’s production design, by Yvan Maussion, and costumes, by Annie Perie, are utterly gorgeous and come across well for most of the film but there is a degree of softness and grain to the picture. Ultimately, I would say this DVD is worth a look but if you can try before you buy, do. At least two French DVDs of the film exist but I haven’t seen either. I hope at a later date to get hold of one of these and make a clear comparison. The comments below from site members indicate that you may be better off checking one of these out, IF you can understand French!

‘Yvonne’s Perfume’ is gorgeous, haunting, amusing and fascinating, a masterpiece of its kind. Among stylised, nostalgic French films I can’t think of one done with more sophistication or affection and, like a good novel, it repays repeated visits. Second Sight’s DVD is largely acceptable, with reasonable if unspectacular visual and acoustic qualities. However, the definitive R2 DVD version of this film is yet to be seen.

Nat Tunbridge

Updated: Mar 17, 2005

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