Sunday, December 28, 2008

Scent of a Woman

Scent of a Woman (1992) has never quite worked for me. First and foremost, Al Pacino overacts shamelessly throughout the whole film. His character, Colonel Frank Slade, is a loud braggart and vainglorious man who by nature needs to dominate every situation he is part of. Blind and alone, he is ready to end his life, and he is full of self-pity and obvious misery. For one last weekend of life, he hires a prep school student, Charlie Sims (Chris O'Donnell), who is on the verge of getting himself expelled from school because he will not give up the names of three students responsible for vandalism. Both individuals believe, for different reasons, that their lives have come to an end. Through the weekend they spend together, as Charlie guides Colonel Slade around the city, helping him enjoy fine food, dance the tango with a beautiful young girl, drive an expensive car at breakneck speed, and so on, they come to like and respect one another. Each saves the other's life. I have over-simplified, but it is important to make the essential pattern, the formula, clear.

Pacino's character doesn't make sense to me. He admits he has always made bad choices. He is quick to announce that he once served on Lyndon Johnson's staff. He alienates his relatives and has no real friends. He spends money as if he has a limitless supply—hiring limousines and prostitutes without regard for cost. He rants and bellows his way through the film, bullying everyone in sight. We are supposed to pity him for his isolation even as we are repulsed by his crude loudness. Why is he like this? The film and, more to the point, Pacino don't make the answer clear.

The film's title alludes to how Pacino's character in several scenes identifies the perfume that a woman is wearing. He is a connoisseur of women, as if they are bottles of fine wine. His love of beautiful women is part of his love of life. This is one of the archaic qualities of the film. Pacino's character is to women as Caesar Milan is to dogs.

There is in all this dross one scene of pure magic. It is the scene in which Pacino senses the presence of a beautiful young woman in a restaurant where he and Charlie are dining. He offers to teach her to tango. Pacino carries off this scene with power and grace. You're convinced for the moment that he is blind and also capable of leading a woman across the restaurant floor in an elegant, complicated dance with beauty and grace. The look of rapt concentration on Pacino's face in this scene is worth the entire film.

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