Perfume features prominently in Carol, Todd Haynes’ love story involving two women in fifties America ( played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara : both up for Oscars for their performances in this film next week. )
I saw it yesterday with a Japanese friend of mine in Ginza. And while I found my eyes rolling slightly as soon as the ‘luscious score’ by Carter Burwell began ( so typical of these films as a signifier of Quality Emotion : the piano; the strings, the chords ripped off shamelessy from Philip Glass’s work in The Hours ) and was initially wary of Ms Blanchett’s arch, self conscious presence ( fur-coated; glamorous : an iguana in lipstick ), I soon found myself gradually slipping into the deep bathos of the story ; the intuitive brilliance of the cinematography; both of which drew us in completely and, eventually, had us sobbing silently in our red velvet seats.
But while Carol’s perfume is both commented on and even used in a moment of closeness as the women share some scent together, it is overwhelmed, olfactorily (for me at least) by the scent of their cigarettes: what perfume could withstand it ? ( how on earth could people have stood the smell back in those days? Those clothes; so exquisite, so soignee and fitted and draped must have just smelled constantly rank. Everyone smokes, obsessively, in the film, to the extent that you wonder how Cate Blanchett’s perfume – Chanel, incidentally, one presumes Five, – could ever have risen above).
In any case, I was wearing enough perfume myself to compensate. Nahema parfum on my skin ( behind my ears and on my neck ), and Shalimar vintage extrait drenched on my cashmere scarf ( perfume on cashmere, wow- I am discovering new possibilities with scent in this regard- clouds: layers: powder: texture – more nuzzling and soft animal, long lasting, sensual ), but this was soon irrelevant or at least a mere redolent backdrop. Because despite a certain Academy awardish typicality ( everything so perfect: a perfectionist’s lack of spontaneity), the sheer visual artistry I was seeing up there on the screen, and the depth of atmosphere ultimately created as the two elope in the snow at Christmastime – beautiful, even visionary – blurred my customary syntaesthesic reaction to the cinematic screen and had me forgetting my nose for once, immersing me in pure emotion.
I think it was the tension that got me: the REPRESSION. The secrecy, fear; the needless shame; guilt. All of which resonates deeply within me. So sad that it had to be that way and still does for so many: Therese and Carol’s instinctive, and natural impulses; the sweetness and purity of their love, distorted and perverted by crushing, and conventional, ‘morality’.
As in Ang Lee’s masterful ‘Lust, Caution’, one of my favourite ever films ( set in 1940’s Shanghai, a story of the affair between a female spy and an occupying Japanese army forces Chinese male collaborator) there is an extremely long build up in this film of emotional and erotic tension, building up inexorably until the final moment of the lovers’ physical and psychical release: a restraint which is frustrating ( some might find the screenplay slow) but which accumulatively, as the film progresses and the thwarting drama of the characters’lives play out, communicates real, and quite eviscerating, frustration.
When this happens, it is very moving. Tender, and for the characters, overwhelming. As it was, also, for us. I realized that as I left the cinema I had been quite absorbed, submerged.
There were three tiares at the fleamarket and elsewhere on the same day (and one of them was Loulou in miniature) – like premonitory visions of the ocean in some warm, far-flung summer. Strange that I should gather them all up in one go, though, in the middle of winter; particularly as two were from Tahiti – souvenirs bought, I imagine, on some holiday at the airport and brought back in suitcases to Japan, never to be touched by anyone until me, unwanted keepsake flora with the conch shell exhalations of waves and that smooth, encompassing, pink white scent of the tiare, or its synonyms frangipani and plumeria: a smell I quite simply adore.
Softer and less animalic or pungent than gardenia or jasmine, more relaxed than tuberose or ylang (flowers that luxuriate hysterically in their own self-seduction), tiare flowers have something eternal to them – a cool, coconut breath and a smooth, lactonic serenity that lets the flowers just be: on their branches, emanating scent and unmoving in the breeze – but entrancing the blue sky that surrounds them.
The best frangipanis I have smelled by far were in Laos last year, in Luang Prabang – the entire ancient gilded city perfumed with them delicately at dusk.
But even the annually flowering plumeria on my balcony have a creamy, luscious scent, if more subdued in their Japanese environment: indigenous to Polynesia, the tree not as prolific as its cousins by the sea, but still containing their essence, their memory, and their ancestry.
The flowers take a long time to bloom (we keep the tree inside during the cold Japanese winters and put it back outside again come April: sometimes they don’t even come out until October or finish flowering until mid-November), but when they do, and they drop from the bough, I place the flowers in water and they subtly unfold their scent within the room.
Because of this, I am very familiar with the natural smell of the tiare/plumeria in all its facets. The party girl tiares like Loulou or Montale Intense Tiare are all embellished and embodied fantasies bolstered with coconut, vanilla, and all the delectable notes tropicales, while conversely Ormonde Jayne’s interesting Tiare goes the other way in producing something very delicate, elegant – and very English. Parfums Sachet, on the other hand (which I know nothing whatsoever about, but loved the Rousseau-like leaves on the box at the flea market and just snatched it up without thinking (I once did the same with a vanilla perfume I came across there from Tahiti, incidentally : very unusual, quite brown-sugar, molasses island winds – I don’t wear it much but when I do find it very rousing and distinctive) just tiare: the flowers gathered, macerated, strained and bottled, grown and captured beautifully in their place of origin. Natural and quite dense in scent, it has a slightly medicinal edge that tells you that the flowers are real. I have another Hawaiian plumeria perfume that smells very similar: a quiet yet richly petalled stasis. There is no throw as such, but it works as a kind of skin scent, or as a moment of tranquillised and dreamy, armchair travelling.
Far more exciting to me is Reva De Tahiti, which I am currently quite obsessed with and wearing on a daily basis to work. I love this, and in fact, quite presciently had been looking at my empty bottle the other day that a friend of mind had given me after staying in Tahiti on her honeymoon a few years ago (could there be a more romantic destination?) and sighing at the fact that I would never again get another bottle. You couldn’t have presented me with a more perfect souvenir, and I couldn’t quite believe how much I was liking it (considering the mediocre packaging): I drained the entire bottle over a couple of months that summer.
Whereas Sachet’s Eau de Tiare smells natural but a little flat after a while (the perils of just saturating alcohol with petals), Reva de Tahiti presents a similar fantasia on distilled tiare flowers but it is as if they had been rinsed in the essence of blue ocean: a fresh, almost ozonic element that is perfectly realized: fresh enough to give the flowers a burst of life (and very much bringing the aforementioned medicinal note to the fore – which I do enjoy, actually: you could almost call this Plumeria Criminelle – the tiare equivalent of Serge Lutens’ mentholated tuberose), but not so much as to make it smell overly oceanic.
What I like so much about this scent – which I found, to my astonishment in a recycle shop in Asagaya – is that while it evokes the ‘clean’ type of fragrance to an extent – Beyond Paradise, Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, Pacifica Star Rock Jasmine et al – and I like such scents in small doses when I am working, particularly in summer – it is far less synthetic: the flowers in the simple but exuberant and very clear concoction floating down from their seaspray gently; settling on the skin in the most delightful manner : light; lei-fresh, and perfectly tiare.
The taunts! The torture! Just when I am lamenting not having more of my beloved Loulou, she goes and finds, from our secret pharmacy a Londres, not only a vintage body lotion but a tassled, and apparently ‘DIVINE‘ smelling vintage PARFUM.
And then sends me a picture.
I can feel my veins and chest muscles constricting in jealousy.
I HATE YOU.
But perhaps I am just getting a well-deserved taste of my own, cruel medicine.
Is this how you feel when I gloat over mine?
The widening gap between the words and the smell is getting hard to take.
I write The Black Narcissus because I adore the potential of what is written on the screen to evoke the invisible olfactory sense – ungraspable and difficult to communicate linguistically- but a challenge I always enjoy, endlessly.
Yet I am also fully conscious of even my own tendency to be verbose or to reek of hyperbole at times, to want to drench myself and you in Baudelarian decadence and the dying breath of flowers (see I have already started doing it), to arouse the senses in this simultaneously overstimulated, but sensorially flat world that we find ourselves in.
I live for beauty, I understand it. But with the sheer diluvial number of new perfumes available, it seems the purveyors of these scents are not only competing for shelf space, now, but also for the sweet lies of breathiness, PR, and supposedly seductive bullshit.
Venenum Kiss, described as “opulent and poisonous” by this new fashionable niche brand who have set up shop in Paris, is a nice name for a perfume : I am all for Poison (especially if it is by Christian Dior). But if you are going to give a scent that name, you had better deliver the goods.
“Les sillages sont tonitruants..the sillages are thunderous” intones the card inserted neatly in the white, satin bag that the promotional edition of the perfume comes in.
Er, actually they are not, mon petit amour, they are subdued, boring as hell, and thoroughly, thoroughly, typical of practically any oudhish (though that note is never mentioned) modern woody oriental out there on the generally mediocre, and very deeply oversaturated, market.
“Wherever you go at night, you succumb to this same hypnotic smell. The obsessive caress of amber and suede, the velvet breath of rose and saffron…. the strong and intense feel of an electric night in the Orient”….
The lover, here, is all eyes and come to bed with me glances, but I find myself yawning and demurring and thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast.
How will I get out of this…….
In truth, Venenum Kiss isn’t at all a bad perfume per se. It is a well-blended scent with its own internal harmony; the apricottish top notes blending neatly into a rose/saffron/wood/ambered structure you have smelled a million times before, but they are well done. Some people, especially those that have never come into contact with a real perfume before, might be beguiled. In terms of texture, it is quite close to the skin and touchable, suave – and modish, certainly – if not directly kissable, but you certainly wouldn’t be poisoned by it, for god’s sake, writhing in paroxysms of agony and ecstasy as she or he derides you dismissively and slams shut the door (and there I go again).
No, you, or at least I in any case, would remain unmoved. Totally. And this has suddenly reminded me of a kiss at dawn, in Rome, I once had and that had almost forgotten.
I was at the age we are at our most (conventionally) attractive. I was twenty one, blonde (‘il biondo inglese’) and living in Testaccio, just down the road from Keats’s final resting place in the beautiful Protestant Cemetery (see my piece on Caron’s Violette Precieuse for more on that), and would be out clubbing on an almost nightly basis. Testaccio is a fascinating part of Rome – such a beautiful city; writing this is making me deeply miss it – but although the well known landmarks are equally astounding – wandering in the Foro Romano at dusk; the exquisite pleasures of the Villa Pamphili, where we would lounge about all day on the grass, drink prosecco and just talk about life, love and death; the beautiful and flower-strewn, winding streets of the ancient Trastevere area (just down the road from my apartment where I was living with three university friends), Testaccio had an appealing, grittier quality, combining ancient Roman graveness – the pyramid that St Paul saw before he was martyred part of the cemetery wall, old villas and churches, fused with the more dangerously erotic realism of night time Roman seediness: married men courting Brazilian transexual prostitutes from their cars, eh bambina, as they trotted about in their high heels and tossed back their synthetic hair, loud and feisty like something from a film by Pedro Almodovar; gay boys lounging about like lizards on the crumbling walls as night turned to day; it was all heady, and exciting, and very, very beautiful.
But I could’t get a break. Not even a kiss. I had been there for six months, and although these people are possibly the most beautiful in the world, or so they say, it just wasn’t happening. This is partly because of my extreme selectiveness: it takes a LOT for me to fall for someone, almost impossible, actually (and smell is a huge contributing factor in all of this: I am so easily turned off!) but it was also a terrible clash of tastes. My friends would try to convince me that this person or that person was gorgeous at some club or restaurant or bar, when I all I would see personally was unoriginal, well-groomed horror (fashion, and neatness is another ultimate turn off for me). Particularly when it was always just so. In that typical, commodified Italian manner: slick; narcissistic; designer. People I did like were unavailable or so shocking to my friends (what, him? Rachel would spit at me, you’ve got to be joking), and so nothing ever actually happened.
But then one night I decided just to go with the flow. Okay, I’ll go out with you, Armani model. Cheek bones, tall (another no-no for me), typically handsome in that bland and beautiful fashion model way, but absolutely what other people like, what is considered attractive (as in all likelihood Venenum Kiss probably will be).
Not me, though. I can’t remember how the evening progressed, but it probably included dancing at the Castello dell’Angelo or just hanging out in the Campo Dei Fiori drinking wine, but I do remember that the inevitable moment came as the sun came up and it was time for this chaste little English boy to go home. There was a tennis court somewhere I think, down near the river, and we were standing against the fence; and then this typical, well-defined, perfectly proportioned face came closer to mine, much to my great indifference (though half the population of the world would probably have been swooning). And, as usual, my instincts were quite right. I felt absolutely nothing.
His kiss just tasted of ashes.