The secret to French cooking, notes Richard Leacock amid this compact film dedicated to his life and legacy, “is in the quality of the bouillon; if you have good bouillon, there’s no further problem.” It’s a statement that could be applied as easily to the work of the man speaking as to that of the one documenting his words. A loving appreciation of a striking creative force in the midst of his twilight years, How to Smell a Rose is a characteristic Les Blank production, marked by its passionate handling of well-selected ingredients and fixated on the joys of food, conversation, and art. Closing out a career-long focus on such essentials, Blank’s posthumous film ends up being as much about himself as his subject, serving as a definitive reflection on the work of two great directors and the specific slices of cinema they so fruitfully cultivated.
Shot in 2000 on the Normandy farm that Leacock shared with his third wife, Valérie Lalonde, the film turns a social visit into an extended examination of the pioneering director’s career. This assessment is incorporated organically, between ample scenes of culinary preparation and consumption, with the gourmandizing Leacock apparently as interested in quoting Escoffier as discussing his cinematic contributions. Now, 15 years after this visit, with both men recently departed (Leacock in 2011, Blank in 2013), co-director Gina Leibrecht spins the footage into a monument, simultaneously honoring two voluminous bodies of work and the lives which shaped them. Equally poignant and frivolous, How to Smell a Rose deftly mixes appreciation and explanation, folding glimmers of offhand wit, captivating history, and local color into a sumptuous stew, balancing its informational payload with a sustained sense of informal relaxation.
Leacock is the perfect subject for this type of laidback exploration, a modest, low-key figure with an oeuvre that stretches back to nearly the dawn of the modern documentary form. He shot his first movie—a profile of the banana plants on his father’s Canary Islands plantation—in 1935, when he was 14. Later he apprenticed with early master Robert Flaherty, serving as cameraman on 1948’s Louisiana Story, and went on to co-found the Direct Cinema movement, working with D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and the Maysles brothers to develop the first synced sound cameras. Films from this period, like 1963’s Happy Mother’s Day, opening alongside How to Smell a Rose at Film Forum, exhibit Leacock’s trenchant skill in establishing documentary as a viable art form. A fantastic, prescient investigation into the absurdity of a blossoming media circus, it captures the hubbub around the birth of America’s first quintuplets with sneaky aplomb, acknowledging the power of its camera as an invasive force while documenting the insistent clamor swirling around it.
Like the rustic, periphery-dwelling subjects of so many of Blank’s earlier films, Leacock’s late-life incarnation as a tranquil country gentleman presents both a concrete link to a vanished past and a living manifestation of its traditions and influences, as incorporated in his art and personality. In some ways, the relationship depicted here is that of apprentice and master, the younger man making a devotional visit to learn at the wise sage’s feet. There’s a second level, however, with the audience poised as witness to the lessons of both, one master of nonfiction storytelling communicating the tale of another. The title describes the impossibility of explaining how to make a film (compared to coaching on how to correctly smell flowers), but what How to Smell a Rose lacks in practical instruction it makes up for in astuteness and ambiance. Teaching by example, it illustrates the indispensability of empathy and understanding in approaching a documentary subject, conveying the cozy ambience of a warm cottage hunkered down amid a cold winter landscape.