Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 01, 2023 7:53 pm 
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Nicolas Pariser’s "whimsical comedy adventure" underwhelms

When an actor dies onstage during a performance at the Comédie-Française, his final words to fellow actor Martin (Vincent Lacoste) are to say he’s been murdered, followed by the mysterious phrase "green perfume." This leads to Martin's being on the run partly from the cops, partly from bad guys, and partly in search of what "green perfume" means and how to expose the wrongdoers who go by this name. When Martin remarks later that he's only a mediocre actor, that part is believable, but it's far-fetched to claim the goofy Lacoste as a member of the French national theater. Martin winds up in the posh home of an unknown big shot with a collection of cartoon drawings that night. When he emerges the next morning, staggering and confused, he goes to a bookstore trying to find out who this collector was. This is only the beginning of a string of inexplicable plot details that will make up the rest of the action.

After the political theorizing of The Great Game and the dive into local politics in Alice and the Mayor, Pariser apparently wanted to try something more on the light side, a sort of comedy-romance-noir. The travels and travails of Martin and Claire Cahan, the quirky comic book artist played by Sandrine Kiberlain, who impulsively (and inexplicably) joins him on a busy train journey to Brussels, then Budapest, are all watchable enough. The two actors work well off each other. It's fun just seeing Lacoste rustle up p a pot of pasta.

But the action never acquites much mystery, excitement, or less still romance. The comedy is only very occasional. The writing is patchy. There's a sudden thread out of nowhere about being Ashkenazi Jews and her living 20 years in Israel that just doesn't fit in at all. One cannot blame Nicolas Pariser for opting for purer entertainment in the form of a spy comedy, and it makes sense that he's evoking the thriving Fake News industry and growing anti-Semitism in Europe, subjects that could not be more serious, a priori. But this contradiction is not the main reason for the near-failure of this film. It's mainly that the plot has the twin faults of neither being exciting nor making much sense.

It is obvious from the start that Pariser has Hitchcock and his North by Northwest in mind, but it's dangerous to invite comparison of an effort as haphazard as this one with a masterpiece from one of film's most letter-perfect, high intensity mystery-action storytellers. This not only is not genius filmmaking. There are real continuity problems here, inexplicable costume changes, and a climax that makes very little sense.

This is one of those cases where a bad effort by a filmmaker makes one wonder if one had overvalued his earlier works. The talk about political manipulation by an ultra-right group and distributing software designed for the rapid spread of misinformation is certainly timely. And the fact that the treatment of it is superficial perhaps doesn't matter: the bad guys in North by Northwest are pretty simple bad guys; it doesn't have to be too specific. But in an action movie the demands are rigorous, the plot details have to work. And these don't, particularly.

Every so often somebody gets killed, though we don't see them. Claire gets shot in the leg (so we're told) and Kiberlain is seen intermittently limping, on crutches, or using a cane. When they get to Budapest Martin is scheduled to be in a Comédie Française production of a classic play in French rhymed couplets, the actors in ill-matched modern clothes. Somehow they come up with the notion that one of the actors who will on stage that night is an agent of the evil "green perfume" group andnd that he or she will signal someone in the audience about the location of a secret material (the "McGuffin" called 'Anthracite") by departing from the written text of the play. One didn't quite see how that works. It seems preposterous, but maybe Hitchcock could have carried it off. And he would certainly have made it ten times more exciting. Because of the colorful backgrounds, the busy action, the charm of the performers, and playing a lot of this - not all! - as "whimsical" comedy, we make allowances. But the final effect is just okay.

See Jonathan Romney's Screen Daily review for a more detailed explanation of how and why this movie doesn't work.

Le Parfum vert/The Green Perfume, 101 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 26, 2022. Released in France in Oct., in numerous other countries since. AlloCiné press rating 3.5 (70%).

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