One Sunday morning, Duncan and I went to a Cassavetes retrospective in Tokyo. Although it was something of an effort to get up so early to be at the cinema by 10.40am, I knew it would be worth it. Having seen ‘Opening Night’ (1977) twice before, but never on the big screen, I knew that it would be a rare opportunity to gaze at the mesmerizing face of possibly my favourite actress, Gena Rowlands, who, as the character Myrtle Gordon – a confused, emotionally flailing star – plunges almost willingly into a masochistic rabbit hole of self-doubt, hallucination and tragedy in the pursuit of theatrical technique and authenticity.
The first time I saw the film I was alone. It was Autumn, about twelve years ago, and I had never even heard of Cassavetes. I had just randomly picked the film from a video shop in Fujisawa, and sat down on the tatami to watch it as the crisp October sun dappled on the garden outside. A shadowy melancholia was present already in the room, and this set the mood perfectly for a film that had me wide-eyed in love: I had never seen anything so seamless, and while stylized and oddball, so real. It was the ultimate ‘star gone mad’ film, and somewhat tediously, obviously on my part perhaps, I reached out for my vintage miniature of Ungaro’s Diva (a gorgeously rich Turkish rose chypre), this forming the scented backdrop to the film (eyes on the screen, back of hand attached to nose: a frequent pose in my cinematic viewing). I have forever associated its rich complexity with Ms Rowlands ever since: this WAS the smell of Opening Night for me.The character – glamorous, chic, fiercely intelligent and feeling, but troubled and angry (and rightly so), I imagined would wear a scent that is full bodied and carnal at heart, yet with an unpenetrable enamel of enigma at surface.
Watching that day, enraptured by the beauty of this film and totally unable to take my eyes off Gena Rowlands: the flick of those hard-hitting blue eyes, her thick, blonde-curled hair, that alabaster skin, another perfume suddenly floated up into my consciousness, particularly in the scene where she is about to ascend in the elevator with Ben Gazzara in a long cream fur coat…..
IVOIRE. Yes! Ivoire de Balmain, that deep, feminine creation from another age when scents were orchestral and beautiful, and embraced the full female corporality, rather than the one-note pink sex bunnies we too often get these days. Thinking about it now, though both perfumes came out after the film, and Diva seemed perfect at the time, the Balmain somehow wins out. Diva is too joyous, too throaty. Ivoire is more brittle and vulnerable, yet so attractive, out of reach.
Yes, this is how she would smell.
Also because this scent truly strikes me as being a perfume made for blondes. Although I bought it for my (brunette) mother over twenty years ago (having spent an entire day in Birmingham department stores trying out scores of different perfumes to find the ultimate scent for her birthday), she found it too sweet. Too something. Not quite right. And thus I soaked a pale-leather diary I took with me to Rome that year (it still vaguely smells of Ivoire), and everytime I wrote about any experience there, on the train to the coast, on the streets of Testaccio, this scent would waft up and mingle with my associations.
I first encountered it, though, at Cambridge when I was nineteen. A friend of mine at Queen’s, Dawn – a sybaritic, self-indulgent History of Art student with blonde honey hair who lazed about half the day in shiny cream satin pyjamas – wore this (or the divine Courrèges in Blue) and she always smelled incredible. Quite dazzling. Sweet, soapily fresh, sensual, yet somehow out of reach. Divine. She would send us out for cigarettes and sandwiches on blustery sunny days and for some reason, like idiots we always complied, possessed by the feeling in that room.
The composition of that scent is complex, yet as smooth, and cool, as marble. Rich and full: yet cold, the departure a fresh, green aldehydic sheen of galbanum, bergamot, mandarin, violet, and lily-of-the-valley, blended effortlessly with a lushly creamy heart achieved with an interesting juxtaposition of flowers and spices: Turkish rose, ylang ylang and jasmine overlayed with a dusting of nutmeg, cinnamon and berry pepper (the scent has something in common with L’Air Du Temps and Fidji in this respect: those ethereal spiced garlands that encircle the flowers and lift them up higher to the heavens). Then: a slow, langourous base of labdanum, sandalwood (which dominates), vetiver, tonka bean and vanilla.
The concept of ivory is realised around the intense binding of all these ingredients together so we experience at once a smoothness – the scent as clean and fresh as a newly laundered blouse in tulle – yet underlying it all a buttery, emotive decadence…..
Myrtle Gordon ultimately triumphs with her voyage to the heart of her instincts. And backstage, where buckets of champagne lie on ice, she is drunk on her success. The effect would be, I believe, deliciously, heartbreakingly, compounded with Ivoire.
Note: I have two bottles of this perfume. A vintage eau de toilette found in a Zushi recycle shop (how my heart leapt when I saw it!), and a new, reformulated edition from The Perfume Shop in Solihull. The difference is astonishing. What was flat, and disappointing to me (was this really how it smelled? Had I exaggerated it in my mind?) is alive and glowing in the vintage. I hope you have the opportunity to try it.