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The Hairdresser's Husband is a film which takes one man's potentially troublesome and disturbing fetish and turns it into one of the most remarkable and affecting love stories ever told. As an adolescent the smell of lotions, hairspray, rose-water, shampoo and Madame Schaeffer's pronounced body odour, along with glimpses of her partly exposed breasts, left Antoine in an intoxicated and near catatonic state. Taking his father's off-the-cuff advice - no dream is impossible: if you want something badly enough, you'll get it - quite literally, he dedicated his life to finding a hairdresser to marry. It was a seemingly long and fruitless search because Antoine is already quite elderly when he meets and marries Mathilde. No detail or explanation of Antoine's life and how he lived between his initial encounters with Madame Schaeffer and his eventual meeting with Mathilde is offered by the old man's flashbacks. It's as if he only fully exists when he is able to define himself as a man who is in love with a hairdresser.
Beautiful, tactful, charming and gracious, Mathilde delights every man she meets: she admits that she is no stranger to male attention but she confesses that she has never known the kind of love that she and Antoine share. Director Leconte's cinematic representation of their insular and intense love affair works very effectively, all long lingering stares in soft-ish focus and slow-ish motion and suchlike. His approach here doesn't offer anything particularly new but Michael Nyman's beautiful soundtrack score and the chemistry present between Jean Rochefort and Anna Galiena helps to give these sequences an emotional resonance all of their own. Much of the time Antoine is happy to simply sit in the salon and watch Mathilde work and she in turn seems to somehow draw strength and pleasure from the knowledge that she is the sole object of his intense gaze. Later on in the film things get a bit more explicit. With the camera taking on Antoine's obsessive point of view, we are treated to fetishistic angles of Mathilde's legs working her barber's chair's footpump mechanisms, her slightly open blouse, etc. In a sequence that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's more outlandish work, Antoine kneels and manually pleasures Mathilde from behind while she stands and shampoos an unsuspecting client: some of the sexual charge generated by the couple appears to travel to the client via Mathilde's fingertips, giving him a subconscious thrill.
They may be obsessive and they may possess slightly exhibitionist tendencies but Antoine and Mathilde are essentially kind and caring people. Mathilde isn't keen on leaving the shop for too long and so the focus of their lives, after their love for each other, is the welfare of Mathilde's clients. The couple know these people better than their own families do, as exhibited by this exchange of observant dialogue:
Simple stuff but when such dialogue is mixed with Nyman's amazing music and Eduardo Serra's evocative cinematography, the emotional power and resonance of such an exchange is magnified to epoch-defining proportions. In some ways Mathilde's barber shop is similar to the cafe in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie. It works to attract some interesting customers who all have a story to tell: the two (gay?) men whose existential and theological conversations and arguments would give Pulp Fiction's Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield a run for their money, the bushy-haired boy who doesn't like having his hair cut, the man who wants his beard cutting because he has been told that it makes his face look sad, the man who ducks into the shop to try and lose his irate wife, etc. All are welcome and all are given a first class service.
Sadly, Mathilde develops a fear of the future which begins to slowly gnaw away at her. Visits to the elderly, nursing home-bound Isidore Agopian (Maurice Chevit), the generous employer who effectively gave her his barber shop, and the growing realization that her clients are all becoming older begins to greatly disturb the sensitive hairdresser. But most of all she fears the coming of the day when Antoine might not love her as much as he does right now. His answer to her concerns is, as ever, to play some Arabic music and perform one of his self-taught Arabic dance routines. His dancing is so incongruous yet mesmerizingly impressive that it can literally lift people right out of their problems or depressions. Most of the time.
This is quite a remarkable little film. The scenes featuring Antoine in the present day are shot in a very French, semi-documentary style which suggests that he is maybe producing a video memoir or being interviewed by an ethnographic researcher. His actual memories, presented in the form of flashbacks, are thoroughly impressive cinematic recreations of past eras. The film's content and approach places it in the middle ground found between two schools of European art films: those that project an air of intense strangeness and those that demand an extremely emotional response. Thoughtfully cast, the quality of this show's acting is uniformly excellent and the film is perfectly paced too.
This is a good looking presentation. Apart from some very minimal print damage at the head of the show (nothing more than a little speckling) the picture quality here is pretty much excellent. The disc's sound quality is excellent too, featuring the film's original French soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles. Given the film's year of production, I wasn't surprised to find it presented with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 and I subsequently didn't notice any obvious framing problems or compositional issues posed by this aspect ratio. However, purists should note that the film's end credits sequence appeared to sport an aspect ratio of nearer 2.35:1.
Media representations of French stereotypes invariably peddle the idea that every red-blooded Frenchman has a mistress that he visits with his wife's tacit approval. If there is an element of truth to this popular perception, Tango must surely have been conceived as a kind of satirical wake-up call: the film certainly seems to be using an outrageous take on black comedy to urge certain types of men to reassess any outdated attitudes that they might still hold about women and personal relationships in general.
When we first meet Vincent, he's sporting a flying cap and goggles and he's tearing along a quiet country road in his convertible VW Beetle. When he starts playing chicken with a juggernaut and a passenger plane that is preparing for take off, we get the idea that he's a dangerous nut. It's an impression shared by the irate air-traffic controller (Jean Benguigui, Mr Chpil in Ma vie est un enfer) that Vincent recklessly buzzes in his creaky biplane. Vincent soon becomes the living proof that acting in haste isn't always a good idea and by the time of his trial he wants to be punished for his actions. Unfortunately the judge's meddling puts paid to that. He subsequently spends his days morosely fishing without a line attached to his rod: "Fish don't bug me, I don't bug them. Life's easier that way," is his new dictum.
In spite of the judge's protestations, Vincent repeatedly tries to tell Paul that doing away with Marie will not make him feel any better but Paul is a bitter individual who will not be swayed. A serial adulterer, Paul has dreamt of being single again but he can't get over the fact that Marie had sex with a taxi driver (Laurent Gamelon) to get back at him and he can't bear the thought of her having a new life without him. Paul loves Tango music because he finds it "fatalistic" and a running gag has him spinning his favourite Tango tunes on a car cassette player whose volume control has become stuck at an uncomfortably loud level. His uncle is an eccentric misogynist who is willing to use women for sexual affairs while resolutely refusing the idea of marriage. When Vincent and Paul each arrange a rendezvous with a woman in a hotel, the judge claims that a large dessert, brandy from the mini-bar and a porn film on cable TV will make him the happiest of the three.
Once Vincent has agreed to Paul and the judge's demands, the film turns into a French road movie of sorts. Initially Paul and the judge are given free rein to voice their misogynistic and sexist opinions and some of their outburst are quite disturbing and offensive. Vincent presents himself as a reformed man but even he comes to agree with some of their observations. However, the film's outlook begins to change a little when a completely unexpected incident at a roadside restaurant results in a young woman, Madaleine (Judith Godreche), joining them on the road for a spell. She's the first of a number of characters that the trio encounter during their search for Marie and each of these characters force Paul and the judge to see that relationships can work on terms and levels that completely transcend their limited ideas. Some of these characters and the situations that they are positioned in are really quite bizarre. But Paul and the judge are obstinate and slow learners and they continue to spout their misogynistic and sexist bile until the film's surprising denouement offers them a chance of redemption.
This film boasts some really outstanding cinematography, including some impressive aerial filming. The show's initially rural setting and the trio's subsequent road trip allows cinematographer Eduardo Serra to capture some great shots of the French countryside. The road trip itself features enough shocks and bizarre incidents to bring to mind Malcolm McDowell's journey in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man but Tango doesn't get quite as overtly surreal as Anderson's film. There's also some really convincing acting on display. Philippe Noiret is perhaps best known to English speaking audiences for his endearing portrayal of Alfredo in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso. Here he shows another side to his talents by successfully bringing to life an extremely cold, callous and contemptible character. Miou Miou is the delightful French actress who endeared herself to Spaghetti Western fans with her role as Lucy in Damiano Damiani's Sergio Leone-produced Nobody's The Greatest. Her role as Marie really amounts to an extended cameo but the whole film is hung around the search for Marie and it's Miou Miou's superb characterization that ultimately makes us want to stick around and find out what happens to her: the ending is worth waiting for. Jean Rochefort of The Hairdresser's Husband has a cameo role as a strange bellboy in one of the hotels that the trio stay at. He has such an understated and yet commanding screen presence here that he almost steals the show.
This is another excellent presentation which displays very little in the way of print damage. The outdoor sequences shot in the French countryside come across as suitably colourful and the disc's sound quality is pretty much excellent. The film's original French soundtrack is presented here, supported by optional English subtitles.
As with The Hairdresser's Husband, the story of Le Parfum d'Yvonne is told via flashbacks that are set in two distinct time periods. The first is set in the Summer of 1958 while the second is set a few years later in the Winter time and Eduardo Serra's excellent cinematography makes great use of the differences between the two seasons to emphasize how a particular change of circumstance has greatly affected the film's characters and their outlook on life. In the present, Victor Chmara appears to be somewhere cold and dark but his face is initially framed so tightly that it is impossible to determine just where he might be at first.
In 1958, Victor has much to be happy about when he meets Yvonne. She's beautiful and she possesses a naturally sensuous nature and an infectious sense of enthusiasm. Determined to impress her, he passes himself off as a rich Russian Count who pays his way by periodically selling off parts of his rare butterfly collection. In actual fact, we never get to know just how Victor is financing his incognito stay on Lake Geneva. But that's just one of many mysteries present here. Yvonne has the appearance of a rich heiress but she appears to have no real visible means of support either. She's thick with gay Dr. Rene Meinthe and the way that the pair are periodically heard mentioning certain names in hushed and concerned tones or appear to be setting up secret rendezvous with characters that we never get to know suggests that they are involved in making money from some illicit activity. On one occasion the doctor dramatically ushers Victor and Yvonne out of his house when a group of men suddenly arrive with an individual who appears to be in need of medical attention. This is the only indication we ever get that Meinthe might be a real doctor. Well known amongst the local social elite, the doctor seems to spend all of his time eating out or attending parties and social functions. Catty and petulant, he has a vicious tongue and a penchant for provoking trouble if Yvonne isn't around to keep an eye on him.
Victor enjoys some wonderful times with Yvonne and Rene and Yvonne even agrees to marry him. But when Rene helps Yvonne win the Houligant Cup at a local classic car-cum-beauty pageant, Victor finds himself mixing directly with the movers and shakers of the province's high society. Some of them know the family that he claims to be part of and we're on tenterhooks wondering whether his outrageous and often ill-considered claims to authenticity will result in him being found out and exposed. But he's not the only one with secrets: a frank talk with Rene and a visit to Yvonne's uncle's (Richard Bohringer) house reveals another side to Yvonne's character. To make matters worse, Victor starts playing his false identity slightly too well and he begins to exhibit the arrogance of nobility, which threatens to alienate Yvonne. He wins her over by projecting the fantasy that they can take Hollywood by storm and become the new Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.
The second series of flashbacks find Victor alone and returning to Lake Geneva to mull over what happened that Summer. He hides in the shadows and leisurely observes Rene, who is now a bitter and lonely old man. Out of season, the Lake's surrounding towns are quiet, dark and foreboding: the social elite have left for better climes and hate and prejudice are prevalent in the local bars. A bleak and oppressive atmosphere is present throughout these scenes and the ominous feeling that something unpleasant might be about to occur soon surfaces. Why has Victor come back and why is he stalking Rene as he drunkenly meanders through the town's eerily silent streets? As with the other two films reviewed here, Le Parfum d'Yvonne winds its way to an unexpected and quite moving ending.
Leconte and his team have managed to put together another impressively stylish and perfectly paced production here. Sumptuous set designs and costumes work to bring the period flashbacks to life and there's some fantastic 'found' architecture and countryside locations on display too. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra impresses yet again with the thoughtful ways that he captures the narrative action and the dream-like quality that he successfully brings to some portions of the flashbacks. As with The Hairdresser's Husband, the excellent soundtrack music employed here brings much to the show in terms of accentuating the emotions experienced by the film's characters. The acting is uniformly excellent too. The beautiful Sandra Majani was seemingly a former model and this appears to be her only acting venture, which is a shame because she acquits herself perfectly well here. Hippolyte Girardot plays Victor Chmara in a pensive and understated way. He often seems to be too ordinary looking and too reticent to be of interest to a girl like Yvonne. Jean-Pierre Marielle does a fantastic job of bringing the seemingly tortured Dr. Meinthe to life. As with Tango, an actor from an earlier Leconte film is given a cameo role that almost results in them stealing the show: Richard Bohringer is superb as Yvonne's straight-talking uncle, a man who is tortured by a wall clock that insists on striking twelve chimes no matter what the actual hour is.
Yet again Second Sight have delivered a near enough excellent presentation. The picture quality here is spot on and the superb cinematography that is used to differentiate between the Summer and the Winter-based flashbacks is rendered perfectly. The disc's sound quality is excellent too: the film's original French soundtrack is presented here and it is supported by optional English subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Le Parfum d'Yvonne rates: