Hoping to make sense of a tragic past, a young man (Hippolyte Girardot) remembers an idyllic summer in 1958. On the shores of Lake Geneva, whilst posing as a Russian count named Victor to avoid the Algerian war, he fell madly in love with a bewitchingly beautiful free-spirit named Yvonne (Sandra Majani). Whilst pursuing her dream to become an actress, Yvonne shares a series of carefree erotic adventures with Victor, alongside their companion Dr. Rene Meinthe (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an ageing, flamboyant but secretly self-loathing homosexual. Just as Victor appears on the verge of settling down happily with his beloved Yvonne, the bubble bursts on their dreamy reverie.
Another languid and mysterious tale of romantic obsession from Patrice Leconte, Le Parfum d’Yvonne strikes a tone midway between the bittersweet whimsy of The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and the bleak melancholia of Monsieur Hire (1989, with a sting in the tail that provokes real heartache. Rather like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the film is essentially a dreamlike journey into memory as trigged by the senses, or indeed sensuality, shifting between past and present with only a change in colour scheme from hazy golden nostalgia to burnished autumnal reality signifying which is which. The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is exquisite and embodies a dream vision of Fifties chic: sleek vintage automobiles, bright gingham dresses, pastel coloured cocktails, a silvery moon dancing across the midnight blue.
Beneath the elegant and erotic surface lurks a troubling sense of tragedy in waiting and the film derives its power from the constant tension between the two moods. Leconte is proven master at elegant sensuality. Few filmmakers are as adept at gently teasing the subtle, scintillating details that add up to an unforgettable erotic encounter. The sight of Yvonne caressing one smooth, suntanned leg against Victor under the breakfast table packs more punch than any overwrought hump-a-thon scripted by Joe Ezsterhas. In what remains astonishingly her only movie role, Sandra Majani mesmerizes on screen, radiating a vibrant, intelligent sexiness in her playful mind games with Victor, played to suave perfection by a sublime Hippolyte Girardot.
We sense that both lovers are acting out a role rather than revealing their true selves - she, the enticing femme fatale, he, the smooth seducer - and risk spoiling the fantasy. The film contrasts their shared erotic bliss with Rene’s melancholy resignation at growing old and embittered. These characters aim to live in the moment, to live life at its fullest, something Leconte depicts as simultaneously heroic and an exercise in futility. We admire these characters for their spontaneity, maybe even envy their lifestyle, but also lament their tragic inability to ride out the autumnal moments in life. What the film ultimately argues is that true maturity stems from an ability to accept the lows as well as the highs in life. One cannot exist in a state of perpetual bliss. Time moves on and unless people do too, they are left with only fond memories behind. But just like our intoxicating anti-heroine, sure looks sweet while it lasts.