When mixed groups went to see Dead Poets Society on its release a couple of years ago, it was noticeable that the women tended to leave stony-hearted, while the men were clearing their throats and muttering about having trouble with their contacts. Somehow the film had managed to tap male tear ducts in a new way, and made sensitivity seem heroic.
Other films thereafter tried to produce the same effect, but stumbled on unforeseen limitations to the fledgling formula. Mike Nichols' Regarding Henry, for instance, with Harrison Ford and Annette Bening, should have been a cert. Vicious (but attractive) lawyer gets shot in the head and learns, through brain damage, to be caring - brain damage as a learning experience, attractive stars, what could go wrong? Yes, it was shameless, but shamelessness within a genre is only another word for conviction.
There was another reason for the laughable failure of Regarding Henry. Where it went wrong was in not realising how precarious a construct male sensitivity is in the movies. It can't share the screen with female sensitivity, somehow. When it does, the results make it all too evident that though a film of this sort prizes virtues that are traditionally considered female, it only has a use for them in a man. When women are more than notionally present, the fragile spell can't work. Best to set your story in an old-fashioned boys-only school, as Dead Poets Society did, and as Scent Of A Woman (15), the new film from Martin Brest, director of Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, also does.
Our young hero, Charlie (Chris O'Donnell), witnesses a piece of prankish vandalism played on the unpopular headmaster by some of his school-fellows. The head knows he's seen something and gives him until after Thanksgiving weekend to come clean. By chance, he spends that weekend as paid companion of Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a blind and irascible ex-soldier who drags him off to New York for a little tour of pleasures. Will you believe me if I say that the weekend changes his life?
The headmaster is played by James Rebhorn, whose face - both distintive and amnesia- friendly - dooms him to character-actor status. He can appear in two major films within a month (he was in Lorenzo's Oil) without anyone really noticing. And Chris O'Donnell, what's he like? Well, if they were making a film called Young Inspector Morse, he'd be perfect casting for Young Sergeant Lewis, dependable spaniel to Morse's dour terrier - or in this case, to Al Pacino's neurotic but magnificent borzoi.
If Pacino has been biding his time to stake his claim in the Method-Acting Disability-Pathos sweepstakes, inaugurated by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (a men's weepie par excellence) and taken up by Robert De Niro in Awakenings, he has done well, and arguably scoops the pool. In an early scene we see him reach down with the little finger of the hand that holds his cigarette, to check on the exact location of the ashtray, but he soon leaves behind such prosaic means of carrying conviction, and his characterisation becomes much more daring and poetical.
Unlike savant autism (Hoffman) and encephalitis lethargica (De Niro), blindness experienced in adulthood doesn't form the character, and there is no child- man nonsense in Pacino's performance. The character's blindness is symbolic, but that more or less goes without saying in Hollywood films: Frank Slade is blotting out a world he is too fine for. It's the same with his alcholism, which signifies simple self-hatred, not a complex addiction.
Still, Bo Goldman's screenplay, 'suggested' by an Italian original, isn't afraid to make the character manipulative, playing up the bumbling when he is around the relatives he lives with, throwing his natty black collapsible cane in Charlie's general direction without any warning. Pacino revels in the character's virile sarcasm, inventing a whole new interjection - 'Hoo-ah]' - to convey mock- surprise, finding a soft growl to deliver a drily dandyish line like, 'Don't shrug, I'm blind. Save your body language for the bimbi'.
He's a hard-bitten military man; he can identify women's perfumes, even their underlying brand of soap, at 20 paces. He dances the tango divinely; he hates himself. This must be one of the least plausible characters in the movies, and there are signs that Goldman realises he is purveying some very high-grade hokum. Two major meals - one in a restaurant, one at Thanksgiving with Frank's hateful family - are drastically abbreviated on screen to make the bonding between the older and younger man (dare I suggest, symbolic father and son?) proceed more smoothly.
On the second of these occasions, we learn that Frank is blind because he was passed over for promotion, got drunk and juggled with some hand-grenades. Inevitably there will be some dead souls in the audience who will ask at this point, 'Hold on, I'm being asked to fret about this guy's soul because he didn't make General? What next, the career disappointments of Genghis Khan?' but by then, most people will have been sucked in - suckered in, even - by Pacino's performance, by the brandished interiority of those dark, dark eyes.
Scent of a Woman could just as easily be called Paintwork of a Luxury Car or Aroma of a Dinner Roll. When asked by Charlie how much he loves women, Frank replies: 'Above all things.' You could be forgiven for thinking the emphasis was on 'things'. After all, Frank sniffs his roll at dinner in a restaurant, and remarks that bread is no good west of Colorado - 'water's too alkaline' - but he's not hypocritical enough to pretend he's waiting for the right brioche to come along, before committing himself for life, which seems to be the romantic lie beneath his connoisseurship of women.
Women are so little present in the film, despite the title, that the traditional stereotyping of their roles is bequeathed outright to the luxury cars. There's the luxury car as whore - the Jaguar that the school's headmaster accepts as a perk from the board of governors - and the luxury car as Madonna - the Ferrari that Frank and Charlie test-drive in New York, taking turns at the wheel.
It was the headmaster's Jaguar that was vandalised near the beginning of the film, and Scent of a Woman moves implacably towards Charlie's confrontation with false authority, now that he has been changed by true authority, in a weekend of healing and tears. The film ends, after two and a half hours, with an inflated reprise of the ending of Dead Poets Society, where the boys salute the teacher who has been their inspiration.
You may watch Scent of a Woman and admire Pacino's extraordinary performance, but be dismayed at the sentimental ends it serves. And then you may notice that your male companions are all trembly in the chin department, that their Adam's apples are heaving. If so, don't worry about it. They'll soon be back to normal.