Throughout the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite feature films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.
Anne Walberg (Emmanuelle Devos) is a nose. Not literally, of course — she is a French woman, and an unusual one at that, but a human all the same. Professionally, though, Anne Walberg is a nose. From masking the scent of an overtanned handbag to recreating the aroma of an ancient cave to overpowering the odor emitted by a nearby factory, Walberg is the pro people call when their situation, for lack of a better word, stinks. It hasn’t always been this way for her, though — back in her heyday, about four years earlier, Walberg was creating iconic perfumes for the world’s most recognizable high-end brands. She’d rather not talk about her fall from the top, though. As a matter of fact, she’d rather not discuss much of anything. She’s too busy trying to discern certain smells, and she’d prefer not to be distracted by small talk.
Guillaume Favre (Grégory Montel) is in over his head with Anne. A chauffeur just trying to hold onto his job so that he can earn enough to get a new apartment and attain a greater share of custody for his tween daughter, it takes every once of will for Guillaume not to walk off the job when Walberg immediately starts making strange and ridiculous demands during their first drive together. She’s unlike any other client he’s ever had before, and she knows it — after all, she’s gone through three previous drivers already. The only thing that keeps him committed to the task at hand is the knowledge that he simply can’t afford to get laid off. One more slip-up, and that’s exactly what will happen. So, reluctantly, Guillaume submits. This unexpected pairing of a very particular, very peculiar woman and a hapless, hard-luck driver may be the premise of Perfumes, Grégory Magne’s sophomore feature, but the eventual relationship that forms between them is where the film’s true heart resides.
While Perfumes deals primarily with smell, the film is truly a full-on sensory affair. This is no easy feat, to be sure, considering film can only truly convey sight and sound (and touch, if one decides to count being emotionally touched as being physically touched). It takes some serious work for something inherently two-dimensional to appeal to senses so definitively three-dimensional as taste and smell, but Perfumes pulls it off through the poignant dialogue of its convincing central pair. Guillaume and Anne speak of stark fragrances like orange peels or freshly cut grass in such a provocative way that it practically conjures those scents as if they were actually in front of the viewer’s nose. Because smell and taste are so intrinsically linked, the imagined scent of citrus or herbs triggers a desire to take a bite of the food or a sip of the tea that isn’t really there. It’s a delightfully sensorial experience, and it comes without the gimmickry of a 4D theater or a scratch-and-sniff card.
Ultimately, Grégory Magne’s French dramedy checks all the right boxes for fans of this specific kind of sweetly subdued international cinema: a novel setup made all the more effective by a well-cast pair of leads, confident and steady camerawork, a sharp script, and a memorable degree of insight. The high-class world of opulent fragrance is such an inspired place to set a film, and Perfumes doesn’t squander it. It’s a perfectly languid and extremely natural thing, and its story of an unstoppable force of a woman and an immovable object of a man demonstrates the important distinction to be made between a strong sense of smell and a strong sense of purpose. It’s as light, as pleasant, and as subtly layered as all the most luxurious scents tend to be.