The toughest of the five senses to transmit through the screen, smell compels writer-director Grégory Magne’s “Perfumes,” an enchanting journey into life’s assorted aromas. Smell is also at the center of Anne Walberg’s existence and profession as “a nose” — meaning, someone blessed with highly advanced olfactory receptors, like a sommelier, but for fragrance. A sometimes pleasant, other times sour experience for most of us, smell means a lot more, if not something entirely different, to Anne (the ever-prolific Emmanuelle Devos), who works as a freelancer, consulting different types of luxury brands on their products, following her retirement from a fruitful career as a highly sought-after perfume designer in France.
Elegantly directed and perceptively written with conventional yet feel-good notes around friendship and second chances, “Perfumes” isn’t primarily about the reserved and haughty artisan Anne, however. Rather, the lovably disheveled Guillaume (Grégory Montel of “Call My Agent”) serves as our entry point to Magne’s story, which signposts well in advance how these two polar-opposite, fraught souls would eventually enmesh to save one another, like two lush scents combined to unleash one another’s powers. It’s a predictable enough conclusion, but that doesn’t lessen the uplifting linger of the film, which feels ripe for an American remake.
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A chauffeur-for-hire whose business is in trouble due to all the points deducted from his driver’s license, Guillaume struggles in ways that are worlds apart from Anne’s upper-class reality. For starters, he is crammed into a small studio apartment, a living arrangement that won’t help him win joint custody of his tween daughter Léa (Zélie Rixhon) alongside his ex. This frantic Parisian wants nothing more than some well-earned time with his kid, but the city’s countless transgressions — plus an unsympathetic legal system — complicate his best efforts.
Opportunity comes knocking when he gets hired as Anne’s private driver while she travels for work, though their first impression of each other could hardly be any more disagreeable. Since “Perfumes” is ultimately (and refreshingly) a tale of platonic friendship and not a romance, the early dynamic between Anne and Guillaume resembles a good cop/bad cop routine more than a salty meetcute, and Magne has some fun with the comedic situation.
A silent mystery at first, Anne keeps making absurd demands from her driver, like asking him to replace the sheets in her luxurious lodging just because she can’t stand the clean-smelling chemical hotels insist on using. She also disapprovingly discards his beloved cigarettes. But realizing in due course that Guillaume isn’t someone she can freely boss around, Anne softens her demeanor and befriends him, while slowly unlocking his hidden nasal talents.
In return, the more impulsive Guillaume alleviates Anne’s social anxieties and improves her business in unexpected ways. The two actors, both delivering conscientious and layered performances, establish remarkable chemistry throughout “Perfumes,” rivaled only by the natural rapport between Montel and the astonishing young actor Rixhon, whose numbered but significant scenes center the narrative with a heartwarming quality. In particular, a father-daughter beach trip on Léa’s birthday lends the film its most sincere sequence.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of “Perfumes” is its inside look into an array of industries that count on the sharpest of human noses. From a high-end handbag designer looking to disguise the stench of some excessively tanned leather to touristic attractions like caves wishing to recreate authentically fragrant experiences for their visitors (this part was reportedly inspired by Werner Herzog’s “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), there’s a wealth of small yet intriguing tidbits here about how people like Anne utilize their natural abilities. In this realm, there are also some odd missteps in Magne’s script, like crediting the fictional Anne with concocting Christian Dior’s legendary J’Adore fragrance, which was in fact fashioned by master perfumer Calice Becker.
Moreover, “Perfumes” leaves some of its name-checked scents undefined, a curious vagueness for a film that was apparently advised by Hermès in-house perfumer Christine Nagel. While this choice leaves too much to the imagination of the viewer at times, it admittedly also spawns a realistic understanding of Anne’s everyday and consequent loneliness amid people unable to process things the same way she does.
Elsewhere, there are certain themes you wish “Perfumes” would go a touch deeper on, such as the class divergence between Anne and Guillaume. Then again, this is a film that chooses to keep things crisp and feather-light. And there is nothing wrong with the movie equivalent of a modestly happy floral cologne you’d splash on for a little daytime pick-me-up.
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