Perfume Shops Pt. 2: Health and Efficiency

Rosalind Russell 'The Women' 1939

Rosalind Russell ‘The Women’ 1939

No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.

But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.

We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.

Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.

I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.

The Obsidian Butterfly

On a clear evening you nip out to the dustbin or call the cat and gaze up into the night sky at the glittering infinities of space. Worlds within worlds; burned out stars from millions of years ago shining out with a phantom light. The great constellations, abstract memorials of mortals abducted or rescued from Earth, are displayed in the heavens like skeletons of giant insects pinned to the cork board of the firmament. Or as the Egyptians saw it, the arched body of the goddess Nut roofing the world like a gigantic croquet hoop. The Evening Star, the radiant personification of Isis goddess of magic,still looms low in the sky and suddenly the unending vastness of the universe, the oppression and menace of it all (what IS out there? WHO is out there?) is overwhelming and you leg it for the sanctuary of a fugged-up kitchen. Five minutes contemplation of the stars puts everyday cares and worries into a very meagre perspective

I love the kind of stories where science fiction meets fantasy and mythology. Something along the lines of Rider Haggard’s She, with its themes of suspended time and eternal youth. Or Rudyard Kipling’s terrifying little black comedy which begins with the author’s teasing information that this is only one of 355 stories about King Solomon, “..it is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped”. It’s probably banned now, being somewhat misogynistic: Solomon’s 999 nagging wives (and the Butterfly’s shrewish mate) are taught a severe lesson when at a turn of the King’s ring, the whole golden palace and its seraglio are lifted into the outer darkness of space by Djinns and Afrits. Screams and shrieks fill the black void as the world temporarily whirls into nothingness until the ladies, Royal and Insect, learn to behave.

Pierre Guillaume’s bizarre and beautiful Naiviris is an uncanny but unconscious echo of this tale: Kipling lists the plants in Solomon’s gardens with incantatory relish – the tall iris, pink Egyptian lilies, hyssop, camphor trees, spotted bamboos, orange tree and ginger plants. Naiviris picks up this theme of oriental heat revolving around scarlet African iris (“so spikey and unfriendly” remarks Ann Todd in another context) and scented woods; a swoon of glowing red earth, dust and pollen. It is hypnotic and erotic, but at the same time weirdly metallic and withdrawn – a hot garden without earthly heat, torrid yet somehow inhuman with no animal sexuality, all sense of flesh or skin witheld: an alien interplanetary garden of the upper air. Fabulous and fantastic in every sense.

Plunge deeper among the stars, try Guerlain’s superbly named but appropriately hard to track down Vega; or Goutal’s Nuit Etoilee. L’Eau Guerriere evokes the sense of a pressurised cabin, the glittering clear air of the stratosphere, the purity of upper air and the blinding light of the sun. Cold metal, fitments, restricted oxygen levels, the exhilaration of soaring into space. Escape from this world: the smell of a perilous alien liberty

Image from user ADiamondFellFromTheSky on Flickr.