Sunday 11 April 2021

Filmic Postcard: Janice Tong Reports from the 32nd Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021 (Part 5) - APPEARANCES (Marc Fitoussi) and PERFUMES (Grégory Magne)

Appearances - Karin Viard and Benjamin Biolay as expat
French husband and wife living in Vienna

The trouble with being handsome and successful is that this phenomenon is almost entirely unforgivable and also effectively unforgiving. It means you’re caught in the crossroads of being loved and hated at the same time; and the fine line between love and hate, admiration and jealousy are hidden under the many guises of social mores.

Friends or foes. The expat circle
in Vienna - Appearances

The clique of French expats in Vienna seem to be one such claustrophobic circle. Marc Fitoussi’s film Les apparences/Appearances (2020) deftly shows the gradual tightening of this noose when Eve Monlibert, the wife of a world renowned conductor Henri Monlibert, decides to teach her cheating husband a lesson. 


What is inconceivable is that Karin Viard’s Eve would even bat an eyelid at her husband’s indiscretion. Surely, that was the expected and done thing that many bourgeois wives would experience; one would simply turn a blind eye, or at least, learn to tolerate the circumstances. Instead, Eve acts both impulsively and cunningly to destroy the woman who was competing for her husband’s affections; in doing so, her actions destroying another’s life, unintentionally. 


Keeping up appearances, however, was the real test of one’s character and status. How can she continue to weave this web of deceit that at once promises to catch her victim and also create a home for her mate?

Karin Viard dropping her mask in Appearances

Viard is a fantastic actor, and she was well paired here with the clean-cut Benjamin Biolay as her adulterous husband, providing much of the comic gravitas to the piece. The inner/outer friction of Eve - oscillation between being the mousy digital librarian and the glamorous wife of a superstar conductor is subliminally referenced through Jacques Demy’s film Donkey Skin (1970), which seemed to be on continuous replay in the Monlibert household - the coveting of one’s true nature with a skin so vile as to make oneself completely disappear. Welcome to the donkey-club where everyone wears a mask. It’s impossible to tell which is the ‘true’ Eve. Or perhaps the question we should be asking is: Is Eve’s life in fact a fairy tale? And if so, what is the moral of this story? It is difficult to tell.


There are many twist and turns in the plotline, part thriller, part chamber noir. Nicely paced, well-directed and well-acted, a film that pleases. Fitoussi’s work is consistently enjoyable. The wonderful Folies Bergère (2014) with Isabelle Huppert is available on Google Play; he has also directed six episodes of Call My Agent! a brilliant comedy TV series currently showing on Netflix.


It has been a long while since I’ve caught the chameleon-esque Emmanuelle Devos in a film (who can forget her amazing performance all those years ago in Jacques Audiard’s brilliant thriller Sur mes lèvres/Read My Lips(2001), previously shown at the French Film Festival). I saw her last year in Violette(2013), on SBS on demand, as Violette Leduc,  an extraordinary writer who was both championed and admired by Simone de Beauvoir. I was so taken by this film that I ordered one of her books in translation after seeing the film, the book was equally good, her writing fiery and lifts off the page. Only last year, de Beauvoir’s 300 unpublished letters to Leduc was sold at Sotheby’s for €56,700.

de Beauvoir's letters to Leduc

Grégory Magne’s second feature Les parfums/Perfumes(2019) is a film worthy of Emmanuelle Devos’ extraordinary talents; at its heart, it’s a story about the complex relationships between human beings. It matters not whether you’re a ‘nose’ or a chauffeur, each would have their own remarkable sensitivities to decipher the world and make meaning and meaningful relationships.


Perfumes follow the intertwined lives of Anne, a perfumer who fell from grace when the heights of fame intruded upon her ability to smell, she lost her ‘nose’ and her notoriety; before becoming reclusive (thus regaining her ability to smell again). She has remained thus, away from the limelight, her avoidance of people and general dislike of mixing socially makes her an odd and prickly character. Her agent understands her client’s genius, but provides her with ‘lowly’ jobs, aromatising supermarkets, masking polluted air, scenting badly tanned high-end leather goods; rather than the glories of creating a perfume. 

Gregory Montel and Emmanuelle Devos
as the unlikely pair in Perfumes

Grégory Montel plays the unlikely chauffeur Guillaume Favre whom Anne befriends. Montel is extremely likeable (I enjoy watching him as the love sick Gabriel in Call My Agent!) and he too, found a way to make their relationship work. He found her world intriguing and whilst vastly different from his, it’s actually a world that we all inhabit; the world of scents is all around us, but with most of us disregarding it unless we smell something foul or something good.


Emmanuelle Devos’ Anne Walberg is a ‘nose’ and blessed with such sensitivity as to be able to tell an entire story of a cave interior and its paleo-botanical and mineral history as to replicate it in her hotel room through the synthesis of chemicals in little vials. To her, perhaps the world of perfumes is one that is a true amalgamation of the tactility of a scent, its emotional and thus mnemonic connection and the chemical formula which recreates this glorious state for a person. 

Perfumes - scents and senses


I loved the comedic scene where she asked to take the piece of soap from a regional gas station (the soap had obviously been used by hundreds and thousands of unseen hands and was looking extremely decrepit) because she smelt it on her chauffeur’s hand (he washed his hands to hide the smell of cigarettes) and it reminded her of her summer camp when she was little. I’ve forgotten her description of that particular scent, maybe it was verbena, but I do recall my specific scent - a particular kind of ginger flower fragrance that always reminded me of my childhood in Hong Kong (when I smelt it at an airport shop, I couldn’t help but keep returning to the store just to smell that scent); it’s incredible how the imprint of a scent is so strong in your olfactory senses that the flood of memories come in spite of yourself. 


I came away from the screening thinking about the hidden role of scents in our daily lives. It’s interesting to learn that single cell organisms use their sense of ‘smell’ (it’s actually their rudimentary sense) to interact with the chemical properties of the environment they’re in, thus our sense of smell has the longest evolutionary history. For us to ‘smell’ something, the odour actually bypasses the thalamus to go directly to the olfactory bulb. This ‘bulb’ is connected directly to the amygdala and hippocampus; and the latter is a region of the brain that storehouses our memories. So, perhaps that is why certain scents can trigger such strong emotional impulses and release the floodgates of memory.


For me, this film is definitely one of the highlights in this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival.


Janice Tong's previous reports from the Alliance Française French Film Festival can be found if you click on the links below.








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