The Green Perfume is North by Northwest, done without the Hitchcockian flair but with some French screwball sensibilities; sometimes stale, albeit adequately regaling.
After a duo of political and intellectual drama pictures that have caused some critical divisions due to their thematic and directorial approach (The Great Game and Alice and the Mayor), French filmmaker Nicolas Pariser decided that, with his third feature, he would do something different. He wanted to change some of his techniques – direct a film with some of the elements that worked in his previous work and add new ones to see if he would crack a new formula. His latest and the closing film to the Director’s Fortnight of the 75th Cannes Film Festival, The Green Perfume (Le Parfum Vert), is a fresh film from the looks of his filmography but, coincidentally, isn’t something technically different. Whether accidentally or not, Pariser made a movie that resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, North by Northwest. You can’t go wrong with using one of the masters of cinema’s storytelling techniques and doing slight variations of his work,
However, it needs to have a sense of inventiveness, which The Green Perfume slightly lacks. Nevertheless, it has bright spots as Pariser indulges in a more playful side of directing that adds charm and verve to the story, unlike his other features. The Green Perfume begins with an untimely tragedy, which sparks a chain of events that revolve around finding out the culprit of said act. In the middle of a performance at the Comédie Française (one of the few state theaters in France and the oldest active theater company in the world), an actor dies on stage via poisoning. His scene partner and friend of the victim, Martin (Vincent Lacoste), heads his last words: “I was murdered… the green perfume.” Martin doesn’t know what that means, but hearing those words may put him in big trouble. He immediately becomes the center of everyone’s attention.
He has become the primary suspect by the police while also being chased by members of a secretive organization. Since he’s being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Martin leads his own investigation with the unexpected help of an eccentric cartoonist, Claire (the wonderful Sandrine Kiberlain). The two take an adventure across Europe to stop the organization from causing further catastrophes.
As mentioned, what Pariser does here is his rendition of North by Northwest, albeit without the high tension-filled action set pieces (it does involve plenty of train scenes, however). It imitates some of the classics from the spy genre, yet with a comic book meets rom-com spirit. There are times when it wants to dwell into a satirical or parody territory, thanks to some screwball comedy aesthetics in the likes of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther or Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Although it isn’t to a considerable extent, this humoristic approach comes as a double-edged sword.
On occasion, the circumstances feel lovable and sweet, primarily thanks to Sandrine Kiberlain’s character, whose charm and effervescent expressions fill the screen with joy. In other cases, it’s stale, filling vacuous moments with over-explanations, hurting its mystery element. There’s a balance between the two, for better or worse, so that there are elements of drama and comedy intertwined with one another without stepping over each other’s genre’s boundaries. The best of The Green Perfume relies on developing the bond between Lacoste and Kiberlain’s respective characters. They slowly fall in love with one another and go on multiple chase sequences to find the wrongdoer of this mishap. There’s something oddly entertaining about watching two people run for their lives to find the truth. The same thing happened when I was watching Netflix’s Beckett, as I highly enjoyed watching John David Washington run for what seemed like hours. Because they are almost polar opposites, it creates a rom-com dynamic between the two as they keep getting closer and closer.
Instinctively, as time passes, these two lonely souls spark a romance. They are lost in the world, and, even though they are stuck in demanding situations that may cost them their lives, meeting each other can be the best coincidence in their lives. These are the scenes in which you are engaged the most due to their chemistry on-screen and their charms – even though I personally think Lacoste is the weakest of the duo (hence making him a so-so amusing lead, depending on the scene). Overall, you could say that this is Pariser’s best work to date, but that doesn’t absolve some of the dynamic balances between the genres it wants to tackle and its forthcoming shticks or tropes. It’s an entertaining feature, that’s for sure, but it lacks the necessary directorial heft to carry all the narrative schematics. Nonetheless, it entertains for the majority of its runtime, even with its faults. Almost all my praises for The Green Perfume go to Sandrine Kiberlain; the rest go to the chase sequences, which I can’t explain my enjoyment, and the witty jokes that made me smirk, and even cackle, throughout its entirety.