The Perfume of Yvonne is a burst of nostalgia, sexual ecstasy, young love, longing and uncertainty, bottled into celluloid by director Patrice Leconte. Above all else, the film succeeds in creating the feel of memories, of a magic, glorified, fleeting period in a young man's life. Whether it ends in a satisfying way, whether the audience or the characters learn what they need to learn--if that's even possible--is beyond the point.
Hippolyte Giradot stars as Victor Chmara, a wealthy young count who lives a life of unproductive leisure. His life changes at a resort off Lake Geneva, when he meets and falls in love with Yvonne, an actress who just starred in her first film. Played by the radiant Sandra Majani in her only film role, Yvonne is both an object of desire and her own woman, devoted more to whims and adventures than to any plans for her future.
Leconte, who adapted the film from Patrick Modiano's novel Villa Triste, hints at many details of his characters' lives, but leaves them hidden under tacit and oblique conversations. Chmara's past might bubble up when he runs into a character who knew his parents long ago, but our hero only reluctantly acknowledges it, and answers no questions on the subject. Likewise, Yvonne's own background is only revealed late in the film, and we never hear about it from her own point of view.
And then there's Dr. Rene Meinthe, an outgoing, moody, crass and flamboyant friend of the couple, portrayed brilliantly by Jean-Pierre Marielle. How he knows everyone and what exactly his medical practice entails remain unknowns, as do the apparent misfortune that's fallen upon him in the future-set sequences that create the film's flashback structure.
Leconte shoots the flashback sequences with a grainy, bleak, desaturated picture that contrasts dramatically with the sunny, lush, almost fantastically vivid footage of the main story-line. As Chmara recalls the story in voice-over, the camera studies the bitter-sweet emotions on his face as light flickers upon it from an unidentified flame. Meanwhile, we find Dr. Meinthe in a small town off Lake Geneva during a cold, depressing winter, drunk and no longer looking a high-roller as townsfolk ridicule him for his homosexuality.
Leconte's characters have always displayed a healthy dose of sexual desire, whether it be sinisterly voyeuristic, as in Monsieur Hire, joyously decadent, as in Hairdresser's Husband, or channeled through knife-throwing, as in The Girl on the Bridge. Yvonne, however, goes further than any of his other films in actually capturing the sensuality in and out of the bedroom. That's not to say you should cancel your Cinemax description and replace it with this DVD. Leconte doesn't concern himself with anatomical illustrations, but captures the eroticism through the rush of little key moments: the caress of a leg in public, a stolen moment in the woods, a dress falling to the hotel room floor, a hands first adventure down the pants and, most memorably, the wind blowing a dress up as a ferry travels across the lake.
These pieces don't necessarily all add up, but they aren't necessarily supposed to. As I watched The Perfume of Yvonne for the first time in about a decade, it became clear that it's abrupt feel and unanswered questions are all part of the experience of this mysterious romance. We might be left a little stunned and mystified about the lopsided nature of this whole affair, but we're supposed to be.
The Perfume of Yvonne marks the second Leconte release from Severin Films (who recently put out The Hairdresser's Husband), and includes a handsome anamorphic transfer that preserves the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image is slightly picture-boxed with thin, black lines on the left and right, favoring those with old, over-scanning TVs.
The nicely balanced picture reproduces the warm, inviting colors of the main story and the grainy, desaturated look of the bleak future. The details are crisp, the compression flawless, and the contrast smooth (some might prefer richer, more emphasized blacks, but I believe the disc is closer to the filmmakers' intent.). One low-light scene was distractingly noisy, but the issue could be related to the original film--the film was shot on a fairly grainy stock and perhaps that was emphasized when stepping-up the brightness in post-production.
The source material has a few traces of dirt, dust and scratches, but for the most part this is a very handsome release for a film that I half-feared would have an old, dismal transfer.
The disc contains the original French stereo track, which is dynamic, engaging and well-mixed, and optional English subtitles that are easy to read. Lush orchestras, subtle metallic vibrations and blowing breezes all sound great.
The disc's only bonus feature is Leconte on Leconte Part 2 (part one can be found on Severin's The Hairdresser's Husband DVD), a nice 17-minute interview in French with burnt-in English subtitles in which Leconte discusses the production, process and reception of three of his films: Tango, Ridicule and The Perfume of Yvonne.
The documentary only spends a little more than five minutes on Yvonne, but the remainder will interest Leconte fans. Those who haven't seen his other films may feel left in the dark. (And, as Severin is kind enough to point out in a title card before the feature, there are some spoilers during the segments on other films, so you may want to skip those you haven't seen.) Leconte is articulate in discussing his approach and surprisingly blunt about what he considers the short-comings in his attempts at eroticism in Yvonne and the emotional state he was in after losing the Best Foreign Film Oscar when Ridicule was nominated.
Disappointingly, the interview skims by Leconte's work after Ridicule, which includes his greatest film, The Girl on the Bridge, and other fine work including The Widow of St. Pierre and The Man on the Train (but NOT the atrocious Half a Chance).
The mysterious nostalgia of The Perfume of Yvonne makes the film unmistakable, but also gives it a somewhat unshapely feel. It's definitely worth watching for Leconte's visual grace and attention to details. Severin did a nice job on the DVD, and while it only contains one feature, it will be a welcome one for Patrice Leconte fans.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.