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. 





Filed under cinema + perfume, Flowers

25 responses to “PERFUME, CAROL

  1. It sounds like this movie made quite the impact on you. I also want to see this; I adore Cate Blanchet and enjoy most movies she is in. I agree with you about the times. How could they ever have smelt the fragrances with so much smoke continuously in the air and lingering on their personal items, clothes, jackets, etc…?
    At least you smelt of pure heaven in the theatre. What an intriguing combo, Nahema and Shalimar. I adore both, but would never think of mixing them.
    You always smell so divine.

    • I don’t, but once they settled, I did.

      I think you would like it: the whole thing is done very beautifully ( as you would assume with Todd Haynes), and while nothing is left to chance – there is a certain stolidity that I find tedious in this kind of film, it is ultimately the work of a truly consummate and very passionate director. He captured something – a moment in time. x

  2. Better’n any review on Metacritic, N. Wish it would come to my little coastal B.C. movie theatre, but chances are slim. The trailer I’ve seen is frustratingly seductive, too. Oh, and Nahema on skin, Shalimar on cashmere? Where IS my favourite black scarf??!!

    • The perfume was better than the film in truth. I did very much enjoy it, as it captured an essence of something, and at a particular period (and not my own), and that is the point. And it was beautiful. But I don’t know whether it will stand the test of time (at least not in my own mind).

      At that moment, though, the tears were real, and it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday lunchtime.

      • I know what you’re saying. I’m all for letting a film “get” to me, however that might happen, for a couple of hours, and enjoying the experience of being moved, without trying to judge it objectively or qualitatively – or maybe, yes, catching some of its flaws or weaknesses at the time but not letting that get in the way of being caught up in the good stuff.

      • I am often extremely critical when it comes to films and on my guard for tedious cliches, but like you, if it is good then it will work its magic on me nonetheless eventually. I also consider the after effect as important as how I feel when watching it. A film like The Imitation Game, for example, that biopic about Alan Turing in the Second World War, was quite entertaining and enlightening to a certain extent while I was watching it, but after it finished it just flimsily fell into pieces in my mind. Just a boring imitation game with ‘quality’ this and that ( I HATE ‘quality’: it is the death of real instinct in my view, way too guarded).

        Three days later, Carol still has some residue – as Nina says in Black Swan….’I felt it….’.

  3. annemariec

    Lovely post! I bought the book immediately after I saw the film. Carol’s perfume is described there as ‘dusky and faintly sweet …suggestive of dark green silk, that was hers alone, like the smell of a special flower.’

    So perhaps not No 5. I wonder what that perfume would have been in 1952? 🙂

    • DEFINITELY not No5 then , although it certainly looked like it in the film scene. That is a very beautiful scent description, though…..I wonder? Vent Vert? Crepe De Chine?

      • Or Ma Griffe, perhaps? Emeraude? Chypre by Coty? Don’t know, but I love the scent that description creates in my imagination.

      • Ooh Ma Griffe – I hope so. Though it seems slightly too light and green for Carol somehow. It needs leather under its hood.

      • I’ve got some ancient Ma Griffe that’s so deep and dark and riddled with asafoetida and vetiver that it out-hides the thickest vintage Peugeot car seat.

      • Love it. I know the type you mean, actually.

      • annemariec

        I’ve never smelled Crepe de Chine but from descriptions it sounds like a contender. It would encompass the ‘dusky’ aspect, perhaps. In another place: ‘[Therese] could find Carol’s perfume like a fine thread in the stronger smell of evergreen, and wanted to follow it, to put her arms around Carol.’ Fun discussion!

      • And really beautiful, actually.

      • Have you ever read my piece on the perfume at the heart of Black Swan? ‘Stolen’? That takes the search for the perfume in a film to ridiculous heights (and is my favourite thing I have ever written)

    • annemariec

      Just read your Black Swam post! Marvellous! I don’t know the film but I certainly know No 19 – been wearing it 25 yrs. 🙂

  4. You’re quite right, of course, about recent iterations. They are light, slight and green with no leather to be found.

  5. Kristi

    I wondered about Carol’s perfume too. Is it Chanel… Jean Patou Joy? It’s a mystery. I could not figure out which of the classics she would have worn. Harge bought it for her, and I know that was tradition back then, but I wish she’d bought it herself.

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