Perfumes, M. 100 minutes. Four stars
An odd couple forced to get on because of circumstances can make for great comedy. The African Queen, from way back in 1951, is still one of the best examples of the formula.
It forced an uptight missionary to depend on a dissolute riverboat captain conducting her to safety in a warzone, and it made for irresistible comedy.
Perfumes uses the odd bodies thrown together idea to great advantage too. It's about a fussy, particular boss, a top master perfumer, and her shambolic, hapless chauffeur who come to realise they could do a lot worse than depend upon each other.
It stops short of romance, though you can read that into the resolution if you want to.
It is an exquisite French comedy. The wider world in the background isn't as dangerous as in The African Queen, but it has been in all likelihood an unforgiving and indifferent one for Anne Walberg and Guillaume Favre, beautifully played by Emmanuelle Devos and Gregory Montel respectively.
Devos has done notable work for Jacques Audiard on Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped and other top directors. Montel will be best known as the lovable, hapless Gabriel Sarda in Call My Agent!
The two actors come from such different places, but they work beautifully together. Perfumes moves at a leisurely pace, allowing us to enjoy the personalities and savour the situations all the better.
Perfumes was written and directed by Gregory Magne, whose sole other feature is L'Air de Rien from 2012. I will make a point of looking out for his work.
As Guillaume, Montel brings a vulnerability and authenticity to his role as a father desperate for joint custody of his 10-year-old daughter. And he is the perfect foil for Anne, his testy employer, a fussy and tactless but gifted boss.
Anne jokingly refers to herself as "le nez" or the nose. Her olfactory sense saw her employed in the top French perfumeries until her sense of smell suddenly disappeared. It has just as suddenly returned, but how to find a way back into such an industry? Furthermore, it's hard not to think that with her arrogance and blunt manners, she has brought some of her problems on herself.
Perfumes opens with a funny, well executed scene with Guillaume and his daughter at the snack dispenser at the local gym. Guillaume has just discovered he doesn't have any spare coin. Lea (Zelie Rixhon) is ravenous after her swim, but has to look the other way as her father pounds the recalcitrant machine as though he has put money in.
Poor Guillaume desperately needs steady work and a new apartment. He has accumulated a hefty number of demerit points on his licence, so his driving career is shaky. When Anne is curt towards him, tosses his cigarettes out the window, and asks him to do jobs outside his prescribed tasks, he has to kowtow. He even has to help her change the hotel bed sheets that, to her refined olfactory sense, smell dreadful.
Anne also instructs Guillaume to help her on her commissions, like identifying the smells in caves that were once inhabited by prehistoric man. They're unsurprisingly earthy, with camphor, a bit of moss, oak, and iris root. On another occasion, Anne is asked to find a way to offset, rather than mask, an aggressive odour in a collection of designer bags that went through a poor tanning process. During these sessions, Guillaume shows aptitude. Could it be that he has a good nose too?
Anne's olfactory pedantry is backed up by the solid research that informs Perfumes. It opened a new world for me. The famous Swiss perfumer Christine Nagel, who has been with Hermes since 2016, and Jean Jacques at House of Caron were the film's specialist advisers.
Unfortunately, there is another film with a similar name that may be confused with this comedy gem. Perfumes: The Story of a Murderer (2006) is also about an olfactory genius, but avoid it and watch this beautifully calibrated comedy instead.
Although mutual attraction is implied, Perfumes opts for new directions and transformations instead. Even the ending has an appealing surprise.