All the magic of cinema
by Camillo De Marco
- Based on the book of Gaston Leroux, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a bizarre retro comedy and pays homage to the marvellous films of bygone times
A furtive and clumsy step backwards and a shove in the night in a woodshed that falls sets off a series of objects in a domino effect that is as amazing as it is exhilarating. This is the most comical scene of The Perfume of the Lady in Black [+see also:
interview: Bruno Podalydès
interview: Pascal Caucheteux
film profile] (o.t. Le parfum de la dame en noir) and the one that best symbolizes the entire film: a domino that begins with the opening sequence and last until the very last. Each scene offers a little prod that pushes the following scene forward.
The second film by Bruno Podalydès, the original and promising director from Versailles, to be based on the works of the author of surprising adventures, Gaston Leroux, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a bizarre retro comedy that revives a genre that had been given up for dead – the whodunit – and pays homage to the marvellous films of bygone times. A follow-up to his first adaptation of one of Leroux’s stories (who also wrote The Phantom of the Opera), The Mystery of the Yellow Room (o.t. Le Mystère de la chambre jaune, 2003), Podalydès here moves along black undertones tinged by hints of the surreal to create a small gem with a vintage style that renders it rousing.
Main character Rouletabille (Denis Podalydès, the director’s brother) and his loyal partner Sainclair (Jean-Noël Brouté) come across as a parody of Holmes and Watson. Evil magician Larsan (Pierre Arditi) has returned and continues to torment Mathilde (Sabine Azéma) who, in the meantime, has married and is on her honeymoon with Robert (Olivier Gourmet). Reporter-detective Rouletabille, a genius of scientific deduction, and his assistant Sainclair set off on the criminal’s trail and discover that Larsan has disguised himself as an unsuspectable member of the group of people with whom the newlyweds are vacationing. But who? And how come Mathilde’s perfume and mannerisms remind Rouletabille so much of his mother, the lady in black who used to bring him sweets in boarding school?
It really feels as if one is leafing through an old comic strip, or an early 20th century serialized story, with its absurd characters and their eccentric passions, sun-drenched locales and disguises. Plot shifts and inventions follow each other rhythmically, despite an overly expanded central part of the film. The filmmakers have fun playing with the narrative clichés and formulas of the period crime drama, halfway between Arsenio Lupin and Hercules Poirot, with a touch of Fantomas-like disguises. This burlesque or even absurdist theatrical mise-en-scene can be added to popular literature and a century of cinema, with its over-the-top characters and an intricate plot that thickens and intertwines to be unravelled only at the end. The extreme caricaturization of the characters is combined with a meticulous reconstruction of turn-of-the-century settings and a cinematography that harks back to numerous genre films.
The film is an ensemble piece with twelve characters, each one of whom hides a secret behind his or her sunglasses and is trapped on an island where nothing is as it seems. Michael Lonsdale is wonderful as Professor Stangerson, grappling with his landscape paintings. And even Chateau d’Hercule, with its nooks and crannies, is a character in and of itself.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black places the disappearance and appearance of bodies against mechanisms of scenic fiction revealed to the public like an excessively long magic trick. Optical illusions and cinematic tricks create a chemical blend of adventure and humour, on a set that transforms itself as much as the characters. Like the wonderful rotating confessional, inside of which all of cinema’s illusions are consumed.
(Translated from Italian)