Le Parfum d'Yvonne

(Yvonne's Perfume, Patrice Leconte, France, 1994)


After over fifteen years of making fairly nondescript comedies, French director Patrice Leconte hit the critical jackpot with Monsieur Hire (1988). This gripping, beautifully controlled tale of a voyeur's obsession seemed to encapsulate everything one would ever want to know about the sinister 'male gaze' in cinema.

Leconte's follow-up, The Hairdresser's Husband (1990), took the same basic subject – obsessive male fantasy – in a bolder, riskier direction. Removing the dark side from his languorous images of an ideal woman, Leconte this time emphasised the fragile, fleeting, illusory nature of the hero's fantasy. The film rendered, without apology, the voluptuous, erotic texture of such a dream.

In Le Parfum d'Yvonne, Leconte endeavours to repeat the triumph of The Hairdresser's Husband. The result is an unmitigated disaster. For about the first fifteen minutes, I was willing to give it the benefit of doubt – Leconte's control of framing, colour, music and gesture is still breathtaking.

This male fantasy, however, is so thin that it evaporates long before the film's ending. Hippolyte Giradot – France's equivalent to David Duchovny – plays Victor, a disenchanted young man who cruises down to a sunny lakeside village on the border of France and Switzerland. There he spies and falls for Yvonne (Sandra Majani), an enigmatic, wispy dream-woman.

As in The Hairdresser's Husband, the ideal haven of eternal love, partying and cocktails is shadowed by less palatable realities: strange financial dealings behind the scenes, and the ever-present spectre of death. In Le Parfum d'Yvonne, however, Leconte loses grip of the delicate tension required to succeed with this formula. Much of the film descends to the level of sheer kitsch – particularly an unbearably twee sequence devoted to an annual Automobile Elegance Cup.

Leconte's customary insight into the male psyche has utterly abandoned him here. Victor remains an insufferable cipher to the end – when the crowning explanation of his melancholy is unveiled by the film, to ridiculous effect. His older comrade René (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is a badly misjudged character portrait: he is the classic sad homosexual, cursed with eternal unfulfillment, rarely seen these days outside of bad Neil Simon comedies.

MORE Leconte: The Girl on the Bridge, Intimate Strangers, Ridicule

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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