Judge William Lee's most vivid memories are triggered by New Car Smell.
"Lovers, like murderers, always return to the scene of the crime."
The fleeting spirit of a summer romance embodies The Perfume of Yvonne. Sure, it's fun and exciting in the moment but when it's over you wonder if there was any substance to the relationship. This isn't the strongest example of the prolific French director's Patrice Leconte's work, but fans will definitely appreciate the chance to see this movie along with the fine supplemental interview.
Facts of the Case
A young Frenchman, Victor, begins an affair with a beautiful starlet, Yvonne, during the summer of 1958. Led by Yvonne's elderly mentor, Dr. Rene Meinthe, the trio travels around Switzerland. Victor wants to marry Yvonne but she craves adventure. Meanwhile, Rene has an axe to grind with the well-heeled citizens around Lake Geneva.
Based on a novel by Patrick Modiano, director Patrice Leconte (The Widow of Saint-Pierre) examines sexual obsession and romantic nostalgia in The Perfume of Yvonne. Told in flashback as the protagonist retraces the trajectory of a summer affair, events have a slightly unreal feeling as though perfect moments have been distilled by selective memory. This is Victor's idealized recollection of events and consequently certain limitations of his knowledge also keep viewers from fully engaging with the characters' stories.
Victor (Hippolyte Girardot, Flight of the Red Balloon) is a mysterious, though bland, protagonist. A chance encounter with Dr. Meinthe quickly makes him party to the traveling trio. A shared glance promptly causes him to fall in love with Yvonne. Victor seems like a character waiting for something to happen to him. Hints about his history are dropped from time to time: he's a Russian count living off an inheritance of rare butterflies, a distant relation knows his family was in Egypt. However, Victor barely acknowledges these discoveries. Instead of making him more mysterious, Victor's disinterest in his identity makes him a little boring.
At the center of the story, Yvonne (Sandra Majani) displays the radiance that convinces us that any man can fall under her spell. She doesn't have an especially strong personality but Yvonne has quiet sensuality and worldly confidence under her sweet and vulnerable exterior. In short, she's that perfect female object of desire that exists in daydreams—and in the movies. For every scene that reminds us of her realness—her naïve hope to become a movie star, for example—there are countless more moments where she is simply mesmerizing. If Yvonne seems stereotypical, it's the intention of the story. She's there to be desired and also to be unattainable.
The most colorful character in the trio is Dr. Rene Meinthe (Jean-Pierre Marielle, La Petite Lili), an old dandy who harbors deep resentments for…well, it's not clear for what or for whom he's got such a hate on. Rene is something of a manager for Yvonne and one of their destinations is a car and dog pageant for the rich. Along the way he doesn't hesitate to hurl insults to old acquaintances that he spots. Of the three mysterious characters, Rene is the only one who seems to be connecting with his past by acting on his grudges. However, it's not clear what haunts him and Victor is never interested enough to inquire.
If the characters' stories left me a little cold, the experience of Victor's memories of Yvonne is very effective. Lovely cinematography of the sunny landscape creates the appropriate atmosphere for their romance. Lingering, appreciative camera angles on body parts allow the eroticism to slowly simmer.
The movie is adequately presented on this Severin DVD release. Small amounts of flecks and specks appear occasionally but not to the point of distraction. Wide shots are slightly soft but close-ups display sharper detail. Edge enhancement haloing is noticeable at times. The picture is generally bright and the highlights are strong without blooming. On the audio side, the packaging promises a 2.1 surround mix. However, to my ears it was a flat Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Dialogue sounds fine and the movie doesn't need the audio mix to be very complex. The only punch that happens on the soundtrack is a repeating pattern of closing a quiet scene with a jarring jump cut to a loud one.
The only extra on this DVD is the 17-minute featurette "Leconte on Leconte Part 2" wherein the director provides brief but thoughtful analyses of his films. The talk covers Tango to Ridicule, plus mention of Leconte's intention to retire from filmmaking, and it's an excellent reflection by a thoughtful filmmaker. Part 1 of this interview is included on Severin's DVD release of The Hairdresser's Husband.
It isn't one of Leconte's best works but The Perfume of Yvonne has some effective moments. It works well as an exercise in sensual romance and the erotic charge of memories. Enigmatic characters in a less than engaging story, however, make this an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable affair.
The movie isn't guilt-free but we'll give credit for the inclusion of the worthy interview supplement. Charges are stayed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
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