La Cinema Olfactif

scent-of-mystery-smell-o-vision-ad

There has always been a literal-minded school of narrow thought which holds that the sense of smell, a scent, a perfume cannot be presented on film or indeed on any other visual media. This of course is a great nonsense: “Films are fantasy” as Mr Crisp used to say. “The worst film in the world is preferable to real life”. And the allure of fragrance is likewise all about the power of the imagination, the mind, the memory and the instinctive responses of our animal natures. Perfume is as much about suggestion as it is about the manifested bottled essence. The exquisite packaging and the crystal bottle may draw us to the perfume like a bee to the flower, but it is how our minds interpret the contents that works the magic.

It is a truism that our brains, noses and minds are as individual as our finger prints. An unknown perfume that we see/feel arousing emotions on the screen is the most powerful and desirable of all: the suggestion of a scent sets up an irresistible Pavlovian reflex. Involuntarily and feverishly, the viewer constructs and inhales the private scent of his dreams. How shrewd is Billy Wilder in DOUBLE INDEMNITY to have Barbara Stanwyck unable to recall (or unwilling to divulge?) the name of the fragrance¤ that is driving Fred MacMurray to the outer limits of homicidal desire. The camera merely zooms in on Fred’s damply lustful face as he smells her hair to devastating effect. If we want to take up clues from the hot dust motes, ” the sour taste of her iced tea” or the sultry California gardens heavy with sticky flowers ( “how could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”) we are free to do so. Just so with Diana Dors’s phial of “Christmas Rose” in YIELD TO THE NIGHT – the pure rose that turns sick, the rose in glittering white sequins that is broken on the gallows.*

 

So you can see how fascinated I am by Mark Buxton’s creations for FOLIE A PLUSIEURS, a continuing series of fragrances which takes moments from the movies to enhance this arcane and magical form of sensory engagement. In each case the great Buxton designs a scent to express his personal visceral reaction to a scene, a moment, a line in a film – the perfume-child of his emotion then becoming part of the group cinematic experience. What is revolutionary here is that for the first time the audience is led (by the nose) to a communal sharing of a living screen fragrance: the imagination must still play an integral part – each viewer will experience the smell discretely and personally; hopefully, too, controversially. But Buxton’s unique role is to provide an olfactory commentary on the on-screen action; each perfume is birthed from celluloid and simultaneously gives an added depth, insight and resonance to the movie in question. Instead of a film historian discoursing on dialogue and direction, one of the world’s top perfumers explores the emotions of the movie through that infinitely refined and mysterious (though often neglected) sense of smell. Simultaneously, Buxton’s creations probe and stimulate the emotions of the audience: the ultimate in modern immersive cinema.

 

Mark Buxton covers a wide spectrum on this scented odyssey: from the exuberant surrealist fantasy-comedy of DAISIES, the nutty Czech succes de scandale of 1966, to the jazz motifs of MOOD INDIGO which inspire a floating world of lilies and incense, smoke and smooth warm salty skin. With INDIGO, too, Mark peels away a second inner skin and takes inspiration from the 1947 novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based: wheels within wheels. We experience the creepier odours of Sofia Coppola’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES; and the cold grimy urban Paris sprawl & the stench of hate in LA HAINE. That classic of Cinema Realiste. The formula inspired by this most despairing of movies is the foetid reek of a cold damp cellar, breathing out soiled leather, blood, sulphur and concrete. But I am wary of providing too many pointers as I do not wish mere words to invade and limit the phantasms of your own intimate sensual reverie. Buxton’s cinema is a private experience, a voyage into the scented darkness of dreams. You need patience to be prepared to work alongside him. You have to adapt to his rhythm and the interaction of film and fragrance; akin to adjusting to the leisurely pace and titles of the Silents.

 

We may see FOLIE A PLUSIEURS as potentially subversive, even threatening, in a peculiarly exciting way. If, as is claimed, “70% of all emotions are due to smell rather than visual stimuli” then Buxton’s pioneering work could set cinema as we know it by the ears and turn it head over heels. We may end up with a reversal of the senses where the visual satisfaction is largely replaced by the olfactory. And, as in THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, we revert to the beast men and women in Charles Laughton’s House of Pain.”

 

¤ she bought it in Mexico, in Ensenada; over the border, where bad things happen…

* in Holloway prison, the girl who once sold luxurious perfume is not allowed to keep even a tin mug of violets by her bed.

Now film fans, having whetted your appetite for a whole new life experience, LES SENTEURS has an Irresistible Competition for you:

 

We have 5 pairs of tickets to give away to a special screening of Still, starring Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen, at the historic Regent Street Cinema in London Friday 8th May in the gracious presence of the cast and crew. To be in with a chance of winning, you simply need to head to our Twitter, follow Les Senteurs and retweet the pinned post. Alternatively, like our page on Facebook and share the competition post. We will choose 5 winners at random on Tuesday May 5th.

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The winner must be able to attend the screening in Central London at 19:30 on Friday 8th May 2015. Tickets are non-transferable and there is no cash alternative. Winners will be chosen at random on Monday 4th May and will be able to collect their tickets from the box office on the night of the 8th May at least 30 minutes before the showing. 

The Setting of the Sun

King Louis

I admire the Sun King, I suppose, but I don’t like him especially. I feel we would not have got on. It is now exactly 300 years since Louis XIV, the terror of Europe, died in his golden bed at Versailles after a reign of 72 years. Like a queen bee’s cell in a hive, Louis’s bedroom was located at the very centre of the glorious palace which defined and celebrated his grandeur. The Huguenots and European Protestants whom he had persecuted were not slow to draw a moral from the last days of the old tyrant, lying there tormented by the smell of his own decay. Louis’s leg was eaten with gangrene: no surgeon would risk an amputation without anaesthetic which would have killed him anyway from shock. Instead the royal doctors applied milk poultices and leeches, sprinkled vinegar and burned scented candles and pastilles to sweeten the room. It was late summer and as all the windows were closed against the dangerous fresh air the smell was appalling. Maybe as Louis lay there he thought of his mother Anne of Austria who had been vivisected on her own death bed with astringent oil of limes poured into her open wounds. This was the man famous for his aphorism “J’ai failli attendre”¤. But the Destroying Angel took his time. It was a cruel end for a man who had always been avid for unique and piquant olfactory sensations and, as his enemies were quick to point out, as he sowed so did he reap.

For Louis’s long life had seen vast sums of money spent on the importation and cultivation of exotic flowers such as tulips, jonquils and tuberose all of which novelties reached astonishing heights of popularity with prices to match. Pineapples, dahlias, tomatoes, tobacco, coffee, chocolate and vanilla were all recent novelties from the Americas and Asia. Naturally le grand Monarque had to have the most and the best. Gardenias, wisteria, camellias and laburnum later added to the plethora of new colours, tastes and scents.

This was the era when modern gardening and the scientific classification of plants began. At Versailles, which set the tone for every royal Court around the world, the terraces were stocked with such a profusion of heavily scented flowers – especially the King’s favourite orange blossom, planted out in solid silver tubs – that visitors passed out, overcome by the overpowering scent. Flowers began to be brought indoors as part of the decor, so that the new art of flower arranging became a pastime for ladies of leisure. (Remember Florence Nightingale’s mother and sister a century later, begging one another not to exhaust themselves at the vases?).

The Sun King, like our own King James 1 (and V1)¤¤ and the Emperor Napoleon, was dabbed and rubbed with various herbal rinses in preference to risky bathing: there seems to have been not much in the way of luxury soap. Water, like root vegetables, tended to be associated with the poor. As a young man Louis was said to have the most beautiful pair of legs in France, which he loved to display on horseback and on the dance floor. Like his cousin, King Charles II, he had a profusion of thick long dark curls, a circumstance which helped to set the fashion for universal male wigs for over a century. Every man wanted to look like a king. As he aged, however, Louis’s mouth and teeth wore badly (not to mention other parts of him): primitive dentistry wreaked such havoc that, as he ate, most of his dinner came back down his nose. Can you wonder that his second wife asked the Pope if it would be ethical to cease marital relations? His Holiness said no. Still, the Royal linen smelled good, being laundered in a rinse of aloes, musk, orange water and jasmine oil. Then Paris in the 1680’s was rocked by the Affair of the Poisons. This scandal in high society led to the arrest and execution of dozens of unsavoury characters who not only distilled perfume and beauty preparations but also traded in poison, abortion, murder and (reputedly) black magic. Several prominent aristocrats were ruined by association, most sensationally the notoriously musky Mme de Montespan, Louis XIV’s intoxicating mistress and mother of several of his children. Maybe the enormous success of Farina’s prototype eau de Cologne smelling of sunshine and flowers and launched at the turn of the eighteenth century owed something to its symbolic sweeping away of such horrors. The Montespan’s successor in the royal affections was very much an eau de Cologne woman: Louis’s morganatic wife Mme de Maintenon was neat, pious and interested in the education of children from grand but underprivileged backgrounds.

Farina’s masterpiece aside, the choice of perfumes remained limited. For both men and women musk and ambergris were still the most popular scents, used to scent rooms, furniture and even food. These animal derivatives and residues would be dissolved in wine or mixed into chocolate, cream, soups and scrambled eggs prior to ingestion. Consequently fumes of ambergris streamed from the pores to surround the eater with a richly feral aura, while the newly fashionable hand-made wallpapers might be impregnated with musk. The purpose of perfume was not only aphrodisiac but also medicinal, it being then believed that what smelled good would do you good, inside and out. More immediately, heavy fragrances were essential to disguise the odours of insufficiently washed bodies, bad teeth, hair and wigs stuck with bear grease; and luxurious fabrics which could never be washed, only brushed and sprayed.
The use of perfume in the grand Siecle as a camouflage for bad smells, and scent’s association with immorality and loose living, reinforced an already dubious reputation which did not even begin to dissipate until the twentieth century. Indeed a intriguingly ambiguous aura lingers faintly even today…and thank goodness for that!”

¤ “I nearly had to wait”

¤ ¤ James’s hands were very soft and the colour of black sarcenet. He immersed his feet in the smoking guts of freshly slaughtered deer to ease his gout.

Wait For The Moment When: Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers…

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

…shows Joan Fontaine the eponymous Rebecca’s knickers and transparent nightie, “made specially for her by the nuns in the convent of St Clare”. St Clare is the patroness of light (and television¤) and light is everywhere in this scene. The set is saturated in it: although Mrs Danvers is a murderous monstrous bully with a quasi-supernatural aura (a witch in a modern Grimm tale) Hitchcock reverses our expectations, shooting not with dark shadows but exploring a dream bedroom scintillating with a diffused glow, a luminosity coming from no particular source. We are in a fairy grotto hung with veils, the shrine of a dead saint, a legendary enchantress. “The loveliest room you’ve ever seen!” (Anderson’s lines have her repeat the word “room” over and again as though Hitchcock is revelling in her native Australian intonation. “Ree-yoom”, she says).

In another sense light is also beginning to dawn on both the viewer and the terrified second Mrs de Winter: things are even more rotten at Manderley than we first imagined. We don’t yet know (though by now even the uninitiated must begin to suspect) that Rebecca herself was another monster*; but the scene prepares us for the lurid revelations to come of her nymphomaniacal private life by sensually dwelling on the intimacies of her bedroom and apparel. Mrs Danvers references the sado-masochistic sexual complexities of “Venus in Furs” by pressing Rebecca’s chinchillas against her own cheek and wonders aloud if her late mistress (in every sense?) comes back from the dead to “watch you and Mr Winter together”. Cinema goers of a certain age will know what THAT means.

It’s a strange scene all right, packed with allusions and oddities. Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers can be seen to be wearing unsuitably high heels beneath her anachronistic floor length black gown. We think of Catherine Lacey’s nun in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (made only two years before REBECCA in 1938) and the fashionable shoes glimpsed beneath her habit that betray her true identity. Mrs Danvers seems to be as much a nanny, a creepy-controlling mother figure, as a housekeeper. Like every other character in the movie she infantilises the second Mrs de Winter and here she talks of Rebecca too as though of a small child:

“…and then she would say, ‘good night Danny,’ and step into her bed”.

Later in the film Mrs Danvers offers a more disconcerting image:

“She used to sit on her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you.”

Then there’s the hair motif that runs throughout the movie¤¤: Joan Fontaine is repeatedly subjected to adverse comments on her hair. When she tries for a new more sophisticated look her screen husband Maxim (Laurence Olivier) hates it. Hair (confined, unbound, luxuriant, neglected) is a many-threaded symbol of sexuality¤¤: we may wonder in this bedroom scene whether the second Mrs de Winter’s marriage has yet been consummated, especially when she and Mrs Danvers start fiddling with hairbrushes** on the dressing table and we hear about Rebecca’s nightly grooming sessions.

“‘Come on Danny, hair drill’, she’d say.”

‘Danny’, indeed! As has been much remarked upon, the sapphic theme is done almost to death here. But it may also be suggested that Danny is introducing Mrs de Winter to the whole idea of sex, to the wider and wilder shores of love: nerving her even for the eventual step of becoming a wife “in the fullest sense”. Were the censors, as usual, asleep? Or just baffled? The director throws out so many signals and references here that the viewer is sent chasing all over the place. As ever Hitchcock is primarily concerned with creating an effect, not a watertight coherent narrative. It is said that he encouraged the cast of REBECCA to shun Fontaine, even to the extent of whispering in her ear “everyone here hates you”, with the aim of making her performance even more nervous and jittery. The menace of Mrs Danvers in the bedroom scene is allowed to ooze out in every possible nasty manifestation: a predatory lesbian, vampire, voyeuse and obsessive nutcase sexually intimidating (and even partially enthralling?) her schoolgirlish employer.

“All this in one day! It’s too much!” as Twiggy says in THE BOYFRIEND.

What do you think all those clothes smell of as they lie there waiting for their dead owner? What heavy musky fragrance fills the room and clings to the furs and lingerie? Think back to the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of storing up her memories like perfume. Olivier grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. No wonder he prefers his second bride in a state of nature and, one suspects, smelling of nothing more than Pears’ soap and Jasper the dog. Scent is as suspect and degenerate as all Rebecca’s luxuries : a trap, a snare and a betrayal. In the end Rebecca is nothing more than the sum of the smell of stored camphorated minks, bundles of old letters and address books, a dusty damp beach house, and her own rotting bones brought back from the sea. The grand illusion – Vanity Fair.

¤ like Mrs Danvers, Clare of Assisi was said to have the power of being in two places simultaneously. Hitchcock was one of Hollywood’s most devout Roman Catholics.

* “You thought I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I HATED her!”

¤¤ As is, of course, food. Mrs de Winter has trouble with coping with meals and eating. Food is heaped up throughout REBECCA – see how sexy George Sanders tears into cold chicken; Mrs Van Hopper wolfs down chocolates; and “Oh! What a plateful!” exclaims Gladys Cooper. But even scrambled eggs – “that mess” – are beyond Fontaine. Notice too how the long, long lonely table separates her and Olivier at meal times….

**We also remember Snow White and the wicked Queen with the poisoned comb.

JOAN FONTAINE 1917 – 2013
JUDITH ANDERSON 1897 – 1992

Spring Fever!

Image: BFI

Image: BFI

Though I say it myself, my little patch of back garden looks a treat just now. I’ve just mowed the grass for the first time in honour of my brother’s birthday: along with the clock change, having the lawn neat again really does mark the return of spring. Newly cut grass is to a garden as the application of lipstick is to a woman’s maquillage, or a tidy bed to a bedroom – it sets a certain seal and a sense of completion. And of course the smell of that juicy aromatic greenery heightens the seasonal mood. I like to have the beds a jigsaw of colour, a riot of hues – pink, blue, mauve, crimson, orange, white and most of all yellow. Hyacinths, crocus, hellebores, scillas, windflowers, daffodils, lungwort and camellias are all out. A little more warmth will bring on the crown imperials with their exotic interior pearls and sour bitter perfume; the intoxicating bridal crown narcissi; and the dazzling waxen tulips.

What I cannot get going in this garden are violets: the soil is wrong, or the light or something. They flourish down the fields and even by the bus stop – but not here. This morning I passed a magnificent patch of big purple violets set glossy emerald leaves by an old medieval mud wall; even in a cold wind the scent was sensually powerful, arousing and passing strange. More like perfectly fresh sweet meat than flowers: not modest nor shrinking at all, but exotic and disturbing – brutally beautiful.

You know me and my synaesthesia: do you, too, maybe think that spring is the noisiest of the seasons? Winter is still and muffled; autumn rattles & rustles; summer sings and hums like a kettle or beehive, but spring is raucous. I always think of Virginia Woolf in one of her fragile states hearing the birdies singing in Greek: the season can be very loud, insistent, aggressive. There is no softness to spring, but a rather wild unstoppable gallop that only slows down and peters out in the drowsy days of midsummer. Highly invigorating and exciting; but challenging and demanding too.

No wonder we perfume fanciers start looking for fresh fragrances around this time: with the return of spring and the light everything can seem a little stale – clothes feel faded & rather too heavy; dull winter complexions need a toner; we fluff up our feathers like sparrows in a sunny dust bath, and turn out our dwellings like broody fertile animals. Watching all the bulbs and buds bursting open makes us want to slough off our old skins and burst forth with a new brilliance and sheen, smelling uninhibitedly pristine and delicious.

Remember Proserpine in the timeless myth: kidnapped in the bright springlight by Pluto in his roaring chariot and sable steeds dyed black (Ovid’s curious detail), the goddess of vegetation was dragged down into Hades and the earth closed over her in perpetual permafrost. Finally returned to the surface by divine decree, Proserpine unwrapped a spring that was brighter than ever for its long absence though we still feel Pluto’s pursuing malevolence in the frosts that nip the magnolia and the winds that strip apple blossom in a night. And, like A. E. Housman & the cherry trees hung with snow, once we begin to feel the draughts of eternal winter blowing round our shoulders the spring is even more precious and more unsettling. We must enjoy every moment.

Bodhi and Birch

Bodhi and Birch

A jolly good reason then to seize the day and celebrate with the fabulous all- English products of Bodhi and Birch. Les Senteurs always has an extensive range of their Bath & Shower Therapies in stock. I love the scents which, as the label says, are “100% pure indulgence”: Bodhi & Birch have a depth, richness and earthiness which make the senses reel – try for instance the sharp crisp aromatherapeutic tang of rosemary and bitter camomile; the languorous sensuality of jasmine or ylang ylang blended with incense. There’s ginger too, black pepper and mint tea. There is also an powerfully authentic artisanal quality about this gorgeous brand which is – and get this! – entirely FREE of petrochemicals, sulphates, parabens, phthalates, animal ingredients (apart from honey), poor old palm oil AND synthetic colours & fragrances. Fabulous: no wonder the Therapies smell so gorgeous and feel so pure and soothing on the skin. Elegantly packaged, Bodhi & Birch cry out to be bought as a personalised gift for yourself or a loved one. Founder Elijah Chooh draws inspirations for his creations from the healing power of nature and traditional botanical healing. Reviving,calming,relaxing,invigorating…whatever you lack or need, Bodhi and Birch have the perfect balancing product to put your mind, your skin and whole being right back at the top of your form. Stop by and buy one!

Bodhi and Birch at Les Senteurs Invite

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon…

Easter daffodils Les Senteurs

Consider the lilies at Easter: throw open the windows of both house and soul and admit the glory of the golden daffodils. Heap them up on the Paschal altars in drifts, in all their shades from white, cream and new-fangled tangerine to chrome, sepia, egg-yolk and imperial Chinese yellow. In Germany they are called Osterglocken – ‘Easter bells’ to ring in the springtime and the Resurrection; to celebrate sunshine, and the scent of the fertile flowering earth. You can still buy them for a pound a bunch in all the big supermarkets: never was magic so cheaply purchased. Earlier in the season they were being flown in too far & too chilled: they perished while yet in bud, but now a jug of brilliant yellow flowers or their paler brothers lasts for a week in an averagely heated home.

“Daffydowndilly has come up to town
In a yellow petticoat & a green gown”

Yet the stems and leaves are more grey or blue than green, especially on a damp or misty morning; wonderful shifting tints of slate through to eucalyptus, eau de nil and pale jade. Plant daffodils in bulbs in pots for doorstep, patio or windowsills; stick them in drifts in your flowerbeds or in rough patches of grass. Display them indoors in brilliant jars and vases of contrasting colours – I buy half a dozen bunches and dot them around in pink, turquoise, emerald, electric blue and lime green containers. Daffodils light up the home like sunbeams – and, my word! the scent of them!

For they pour out perfume – let no one tell you that daffs have no scent – it gushes forth, especially on a warm day when they fill a room or a garden with their bewitching giddy fragrance. Powdery, slightly gaseous, faintly rubbery, highly pollenaceous, a touch honeyed, even a trifle oily and a whiff of mackintosh. Not unrelated to the more intoxicating odours of jonquil and narcissus, daffodils are smell greener, drier, fresher. They are the first truly scented flowers of spring and that’s why we love them so well. For me they rival the rose for our national flower: currently there is a poll taking place to choose our archetypal British bird. Well, one of the great sights of Eastertide is a male blackbird, sooty-black and glossy, with his bill as yellow as the flowers hopping through the daffodils looking for love, comfort, inspiration and worms.

Let’s take a tip from him and choose a glorious new perfume to celebrate springtime and Easter. For “then my heart with pleasure fills/ And dances with the daffodils.”

May I wish you on behalf of All of Us at LES SENTEURS a peaceful, joyous and superbly scented Eastertide? Happy Easter to All our Kind Customers and Readers!