Documentaries often suffer because the filmmaker injects too much of himself into the story. Les Blank’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit With Ricky Leacock in Normandy has the opposite flaw. Blank, who co-directed with Gina Leibrecht, is so quietly respectful of Leacock that what could have been a spellbinding, My Dinner With Andre–like conversation piece between two pioneering — and now recently deceased — documentarians is instead an ode, fitfully captivating, though plenty amusing.
Leacock discusses his beginnings as a traveling photographer, his growing frustration with tripods, fancy recorders, and other cumbersome cinematic tools, and how he eventually helped make a film — Robert Drew’s 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign short Primary — that eschewed these devices and came to be considered the start of the Direct Cinema movement. His movies not only caught famous figures — like Igor Stravinsky and the rock stars in Monterey Pop — in refreshingly candid, objective ways, but also zeroed in on everyday figures, such as the overwhelmed mother of quintuplets in the 1963 short Happy Mother’s Day, which Film Forum is screening with Rose.
Punctuating Leacock’s reflections — most of them shot in and around his charming farmhouse — are sequences of Leacock cooking gourmet meals. His wife, Valérie Lalonde, with whom he shot films after relocating to France in the late 1980s, pontificates briefly on how she came to terms with Leacock’s promiscuous past, but her presence here is fleeting. Also decidedly lacking are explanations as to why Leacock went the expat route, or a more probing look into Leacock and Blank’s similar passions. (Both, for instance, made films about American folk music.) Rose is a pleasant affair, but you might want to know far more about Blank and far less about, say, pot-au-feu.
How to Smell a Rose: A Visit With Ricky Leacock in Normandy
Directed by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht
Opens August 12, Film Forum