August 7, 2005
Le Parfum d'Yvonne, 1994
The brooding and achingly sensual Monsieur Hire was my first exposure to Patrice Leconte's films, and to a great extent, it was this initial encounter with haunted obsession and sad-eyed romanticism that propelled me to continue to seek out his body of work, trying to recapture in some way the searing melancholia and bittersweet intoxication - the elusive intensity of feeling - that had marked the experience. At times, his films would follow a similar trajectory of foreboding obsession and consciousness of elusive happiness without achieving a similar weight of tragedy (most notably, The Hairdresser's Husband); at other times, his films would embark on a different manifestation of obsession and fatalism that were accomplished and satisfying, but nevertheless remained sentimentally dissimilar to the experience of watching Monsieur Hire (as in The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the Train, and Intimate Strangers).
It is interesting to note that Monsieur Hire is a tailor: a profession that, as rendered in Wong Kar-wai's atmospheric Eros installment, The Hand, involves a degree of familiarity but also a certain kind of calculated, analytical detachment. In hindsight, this paradoxical coexistence between intimacy and distance lies at the core of Le Parfum d'Yvonne as well. In the film, a carefree drifter and French expatriate named Victor Chmara bides his time "growing old as gently as possible" (and perhaps trying to evade conscription in the Algerian War), living a rootless, seemingly privileged life from one lodging house to another in Geneva when he meets a wealthy, flamboyant physician, Rene Meinthe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and his protégée, a beautiful, aspiring actress named Yvonne Jacquet (Sandra Majani). At first, Rene's relationship with Yvonne seems indecipherable - or perhaps, too sordidly obvious - to Victor as he tries to seduce the young woman behind Rene's back (or rather, under the dining table). However, even after realizing Rene's open homosexuality, his attachment to Yvonne remains a mystery, as the two travel in social circles where money and affection change hands all too casually. But Victor is also a mystery, introducing himself as a Russian count but without any visible means of support or a vocation (and who, at the beginning of the film, was compelled to change accommodations from the L'Hermitage luxury hotel to a more modest bed and breakfast guest house). Told through a series of intersecting flashbacks between recent past (filmed in brisk, rough, wintry darkness) and several years earlier (filmed in warm, sun-bathed hues and cerulean summer skies) from Victor's perspective, the film is an evocative and fascinating deconstruction, not only of obsessive impenetrability, but also the character demystification of the enigmatic narrative hero. Like Monsieur Hire, Victor's inescapable tragedy lies in his own tacit complicity to perpetuate the masquerade and transparent deception in order to hold onto the unsustainable illusion of blissful, idealized innocence.