“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.
Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”
Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.
And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.
On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).
Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
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