Wait For The Moment When: Gloria Swanson

sb95

…Goes To Bed With William Holden.

No director was as layered, coded and mordantly witty as Billy Wilder at his best. His contemporaries were shattered by SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) – Louis B Mayer, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Norma Shearer, Garbo, Mae West and Montgomery Clift all had their own reasons to be disturbed by it. The American public was baffled. Surely no movie is more complex. I have seen it at least 100 times yet every viewing reveals another detail, another clue or flash of gallows humour. Wilder is a generous director: he gives you a mass of stimuli and then allows you to take these hints, symbols and allusions as far as you like.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is a satire, a black comedy, a psychological thriller and occasionally a horror movie. The first half of the movie ends with the scene of Norma Desmond’s first coupling with Joe Gillis : a union of two vampires come together at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The fatal party that ends the evening in Norma’s suicide attempt in “that grim Sunset castle” is seen in retrospect to have been a macabre wedding feast complete with a great cake and a tango band playing the erotic rhythm that originated in the porteno brothels of Buenos Aires. As Norma and Joe dance – “there are no other guests” – Swanson tears off her hair jewel and veil, a bridal disrobing, self-defloration for her putative fourth husband. Is there also a reference to an abdication as she removes this winged diamond falcon¤, just as Garbo removes her diadem in QUEEN CHRISTINA? Will Norma give up the career – the lost career that only she still believes in – for marriage? Is the whilom Queen of Hollywood renouncing her crown for paid love? What an irony of absolutely sterile futility: Billy Wilder is not always a comfortable companion.

Later, lying on her “bed like a gilded rowboat” – dreamboat? – Norma is visually the more evident succubus, what with her brilliant white teeth, her snaky black curls and her slit wrists bandaged to look like evening gloves, arching varnished nails as though painted with her own blood. But look at the predatory incubus Joe, still wearing the luxurious evening clothes, vicuna coat and jewellery paid for by the doting employer so soon to be his mistress. Tenderly as an expert torturer, he unties and removes her shoes, well-worn conjugal symbols of fertility and sex, before Norma draws him down into a literally fatal embrace like a mantis. And in taking off her shoes Joe is about to hobble Norma with sex, just as she has captured him with money. The pair of them are now fatally enmeshed, inextricably entangled .

“Happy New Year, Norma”

In the springtime one of them will be shot dead; and his murderer taken off raving to the asylum.

“Happy New Year, darling”.

Sunset15

And then immediately follows a sinisterly skittish scene in the (ruined) garden to which Norma, usually a creature of the shadows, has briefly returned like a middle aged Persephone. By the poolside• and for the only time in the movie Swanson and Holden seem briefly almost at ease with one another. For a mad moment you think that they might even have the possibility of a future together: Joe Gillis capers in his swimming trunks and Miss Desmond, revived by salaried sex and astrology, is positively girlish¤¤, but then comes that unsettling moment when Joe emerges from the water (the last living creatures seen in that pool were rats: he himself is “a stray dog”). Norma swathes him in a towel that is horribly like a winding sheet – or a straitjacket. The phone rings, Paramount is on the line and Norma’s only true love – herself & her own fame – once again takes over.

What a reel! And I have omitted so much: the ominous figure of Max, the keychains & gaping keyholes, the recurring telephone motif, the mirrors…but run the picture and as Lilian Gish would say, “Judge for yourselves”. One last thing: by this point in the movie we have been told very explicitly how Norma smells – “…of tuberoses, which are not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot” says Joe. (There’s a whiff of marijuana, Egyptian cigarettes and “half a pound of make up”, too). Tuberoses in excess can be airless, invasive, claustrophobic, eating up oxygen: they are narcotic, obsessive, aphrodisiac and stupefying. The ancient Mexicans, struck by their skeletal white purity, called them “flowers of the bone” and wreathed their dying gods with them. In Latin countries they are often associated with death, piled up in funeral parlours and in cemeteries like lilies and chrysanthemums here. In short, lovely as they are – and I have a spray blooming by me as I write – the tuberose is the perfect olfactory metaphor for Norma Desmond: a perfection of sinister predatory glamour.”

¤ for so it looks to me, lying on the tiled floor and picked up like a holy relic by Max, now the butler and once Norma’s first husband. Norma talks of Valentino’s penchant for the tango – does this bird reference his film “THE EAGLE” with its theme of a young Cossack pursued by a much older amorous Empress?

• at least one commentator has equated the swimming pool to the waters of Norma’s womb; but as Julie Andrews once said, “I think that’s going a little too far, don’t you?”

¤¤ though her leopard outfit reminds us of her predatory exoticism – and her claws.

William Holden 1918- 1981
Gloria Swanson 1899 – 1983

Be My Valentine?

postcard_old_fashioned_valentine_girl_boy_heart-rdd1d84deef544a4889186a1de9d8d7dc_vgbaq_8byvr_512

What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

il_340x270.497978522_1fhd

Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

Woman in a Dressing Gown

From http://notreallyworking.co.uk

A universal cliche holds it as a truth that you cannot portray or even talk about perfume on film or tv without extreme difficulty: ” they can’t smell it, don’t you see?”. I don’t at all agree, holding with that apocryphal but accurate endorsement of radio that the pictures on the wireless are better. I believe that imaginary smells may be more pungent if the correct stimuli are applied to the senses. Do you remember that gruesome children’s game – was it Murderer in the Dark?  – when we all sat in a circle with the lights off while peeled grapes, lumps of meat, pickled onions and egg yolks were passed from hand to hand, purporting to be parts of a dismembered corpse? (Childhood still retained its innocence in the 1950’s). Parents worked very hard preparing the objects for this tableau vivant and there’s no doubt it left a lasting impact on the players and the development of their imaginations.

If you think about it, film has always been able to suggest smell and scent; using them as part of the holistic mood of a movie. I don’t mean that handful of novelty features which pumped smells into the auditorium or used scratch cards to release odours on cue.(“Smell-o-vision” being one such process). No. I’m talking about aromas released in the viewer’s head via the screenplay, the dialogue, the camera. “Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue”, Louise Brooks used to say. Maybe out of the camera comes the perfume.

And out of the vision of a gifted director. Think of Germany’s first talkie, Dietrich’s breakthrough picture The Blue Angel. Setting the action mainly in schoolrooms and the backstage of  tavern cabarets Von Sternberg enhances his banal and sordid theme with a battery of smells, mostly unsavoury, implied by sets, characters and action. A dead canary thrown into the stove, a performing bear, Marlene’s knickers repeatedly gloated over by the camera, face powder blown in Emil Jannings’ face, tatty costumes, beer, cheap champagne,coffee, smoke, tobacco, broken eggs, a pineapple, chalk dust, old books, sweaty wigs…well, see for yourselves sometime. Then take a deep breath on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know whether (as Caron used to claim) Billy Wilder really sprayed the sets with Narcisse Noir but there’s certainly the dead monkey, the decaying house and pool, the Isotta Fraschini upholstered in leopard in the damp garage, Norma’s Egyptian cigarettes (“Abdullahs”), her tuberose perfume, her “half an inch of makeup”, the rats, the untouched buffet at her New Year party. Plus, what is she smoking in that curious wire holder on her finger? I’m now on series 4 of Mad Men and a holder just like Norma’s is used to puff marijuana at a wild club. And we all used to think it was the champagne making her talk so silly.

But the olfactory movie par excellence must be the more modest Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ted Willis’s 1957 British slice of kitchen sink: Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in the throes of unrecognised undiagnosed depression, surrounded by her ghastly menfolk and her own hopeless mess at 23 Nightingale House. She’s past bothering to dress, just throws on the eponymous dressing gown.  Her first appearance is accompanied by an beast-like snuffling and sniffing as the breakfast toast burns, followed by a huge close-up of the charred slice shot from under the grill. We’re off!

The camera lingers obsessively over Amy’s dreadful cooking – the blackened bacon and eggs, soaked in fat and the plate wiped on her gown; the burned fillet of plaice and chips (“Smells Good!” – doesn’t taste it though); and yet another supper treat, “cold ham, cold veal, cold pork”. All are served with a battery of bottled sauces, and everything smells of confusion, anxiety and a desperate longing to nurture and please. (Jimbo’s mistress, of course, cooks like an angel in the kitchen: a beautifully presented Sunday roast to mirror her skill in quite a different room).

From breakfast we cut to Jimbo shaving in a steamy bathroom and segue into laundry, hot irons, baby-minding, pawnshops (an old old coat being popped), timber yards, the river, raucous pubs, a hairdressing salon run by Olga Lindo, Tallulah’s understudy in the 1920’s and now a gruff dragon-manageress with a golden heart. And the rain pours down: black, mucky, sooty city rain – used as so often in old cinema as a metaphor for sex, a symbol of illicit passion. Wasn’t film so much more interesting when we had to familiarise ourselves with all these codes and ciphers which faded away so quickly with the collapse of censorship? The film ends with the saddest “happy ending” you ever saw and a threat that the dressing gown may be discarded, even washed. Like dogs, the characters have returned to their own vomit, reassured by the smells of their own debris and failure, safe if not happy in their soiled bedding.

Image from: http://notreallyworking.co.uk

Fatal Attraction

“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?”

Image from Wikimedia commons