Utopia and dystopia are often very close, at least for me. Perfection is perfection, but it can be cold – even terrifying. Black Mirror, a very British series made by Netflix that we have started watching recently through the recommendations of several friends, is a brilliantly realised, fantastically acted, if extremely discomfiting, ‘science fiction’ set of dramatic pieces taking place in the present or not too far away future that deals with issues related to the internet, to social networks; virtual reality, and our complicated, addictive, and potentially lethal relationship with computers.
Each episode of Black Mirror is separate: self-contained, but there is an accumulative, quite disconcerting effect in gradually working your way through the series, the sheer realism and convincing potentiality of each story making you come to the conclusion that if we are not careful, what makes us human might be irreparably, irrevocably, changed if we continue to blindly (hence the black of the mirror?) continue to strive for technological ‘progress’ no matter the cost to our souls, pushed, to the side, by the quest for Convenience, and the innate inquisitiveness that human beings have to develop things just because they can, or more likely, for profit – which is at the heart of everything – the tech firms that control us and hook us on their apps; their programs, their soon to be omniscient artificial intelligence.
Though compelling – even essential – viewing, due to its unflinching – you might even call it sadistic – precision, coldly dissecting hypothetical realities in which, for example, human beings of means can have chips fitted into their brains that allow them not only to rewind their own memories but their partners and other people’s as well (what would this do to relationships?); use an app that recreates a deceased loved on in the body of an android (poignant in the extreme, but creepy as hell); have versions of themselves made as self-policers, trapped inside a computer but with exactly the same sentience (bringing up ethical issues of cloning and mind/body separation), and virtual reality games which plumb the darkest of your fears and are so terrifying they can literally kill you – it is all cheering, uplifting stuff, and typically British, somehow, in its almost gleefully misrerabilist nihilism: I find myself watching it, my eyes wide open unable to turn away, but then filled with a cold, dis-eased chill afterwards that leaves me feeling very strange (one episode, dealing with a new form of punishment for violent criminals in which the convicted perpetrators are then drugged, awakened, and punished over and over again by the public who join in enactments based on the kind of crime that the perpetrator (allegedly) committed in a form of repetitive Sartrean hell – basically 45 minutes of anguish and screaming – left us so unsettled that we didn’t want to watch any more of the series for quite a long time afterwards (because, though obviously extremely through provoking what kind of ‘entertainment’ is this, exactly, why do we do this to ourselves?) It is, undeniably, a brilliant creation. So thought-provoking and relevant; prescient. And yet there is so little levity in the mix that you sometimes just want to simply switch the mirror off.
Series 3, which we recommenced, after a break, with recently on the big screen in our projector room upstairs, transported the believably scaring dystopia of the UK to the relatively cheery and sunny shores of the USA, alleviating – for me at least, as a Brit, some of the sheer horror that the first two series engendered in us. Episode One, ‘Nosedive’, featured the always intriguing (and very beautiful) Bryce Dallas Howard as a woman living in a not unfeasible world where all people, fitted with connected-to-smart-phone-contact-lenses, continually clutch their phones (so nothing new there), but a new system in which users are allowed, or rather, forced, to rate each person and encounter they have with each person that they meet, no matter how long or short the time they spend interacting, be it online, or in the flesh- giving them a rating out of five stars, and resulting in a beaming falsity and ‘HI!’s so bright they make your jaw ache. Anything though, a poisonous pleasantness, to maintain your crucial ‘rating’, the raison d’être of existence – which leads to truly toxic, Mr bluebird-on-my-shoulder levels of happy fakeness. A ‘4: 3’ – at least initially- Lacie is full of ambition and desperation to ‘make it’ to the ultra-desired statehood of a 4.5, the point at which, like some form of digitalised caste system, individuals enter the high life with all its special dividends, opportunities, and most importantly of course, status: ACCEPTANCE.
The price you pay for this ephemeral, ethernet ‘happiness’, of course, is a life of incredibly shallow superficiality (not so different, in fact, from all the likes and the dislikes of our actual Facebook real world that we are living in, hence the inherent, frightening tensions at the heart of the entire series) all shark white, dazzling smiles, white clothing, and venomously cheerful have a nice days that would lead any sane person to recreat to a solo community of 2ness and be done with the entire atrocity, except that we human beings have an inborn need to be with other people, to be judged positively, to be truly approved, and the truth is, the majority of us will do whatever it in fact takes, to get this condonement.
While nervously laughing and grimacing as I watched this world of blinding whiteness and lethally unforgiving hygiene, the ad-perfect, synthetic demeanours of the characters so desperately trying to impress each other, I was reminded, in my smell brain, in olfactory terms, of many of the (in truth, equally brilliant) creations of the popular house of Francis Kurkdijian – a precise, futuristic, and light-refracting perfumer whose fragrances – with such indefatigable equilibrium, impenetrable formulae and such absolute seamlessness, have an almost anti-natural quality (Kurkdijian, even when using the finest naturals, somehow alchemizes natural materials into something unrecognisably beyond); to me, his perfumes always have the mark of an ultra-perfectionist. No sloppy, indistinct easy nicheness for this elegant, imaginative perfumer. No. In many ways he is in a league of his own. I think that he is brilliant, actually. But the citruses, in particular, like Absolue Pour Le Matin, Aqua Vitae, do disturb me.
A couple of years ago or so, I was given a bottle of the former, and a small sample bottle of the latter, and while I was sufficiently impressed by both of them to try them out on my work wear – surreptitious spritzes on the cuffs of my white shirts – and I enjoyed, to a certain extent, the clean, laundry musked patina of FK’s constantly CK One-quoting infallibility that I was giving off like an annihilating angel (sometimes it feels that this perfumer’s mission is to be cleaner than cleaner than cleaner than Clean, to the point where all mush, and ligament, and marrow and human imperfections are sucked off; bleached into eternity: and gleaming replicas are found scenting in their place; a pleasantness, an erasure, almost, to the power of fifteen), ultimately, something inside me rejected the strictures of such a philosophy.
Aqua Vitae is a perfect case in point. A bright lemon and balsam modern perfume shot through with invisible steel, the benzoin and tonka-lasered in from the future – all in obviously perfect ratio (Kurkdijian is a master mathematician) – the result, in many ways, is rather lovely, if still somehow oddly alarming in its almost eugenically poised aura – a daytime scent for a new spring day that I enjoy keeping in my collection but approach with some trepidation (am I totally overreacting here?!)……but in, it I feel that I am losing something of myself rather than projecting or augmenting or presenting myself in a certain idealised light that I can do with the best of my perfumes….in Aqua Vitae I feel that I must smell like one of the terrified, grinning, smartphone-brainwashed ciphers in that episode of Black Mirror, my natural humanity tenderwashed; neutered.
Absolue Pour Le Matin takes this forgiveless approach even further, with a sharpness cutting through its matinal rapture that very nearly severs the optic nerves: a note of ‘white thyme’ ( I love thyme in real life), but a cloned clone idea of what thyme was like three hundred years into the future, shimmering at the bottom of a lake, vitalizing the citric, metallic elements, but also rendering them too grimly clean and insistent (they grow, in stature, until I feel that the perfume is taking over my mind and I can hardly breathe, let alone even think straight anymore. This one I will not be wearing again (though Petit Matin, a more recent rendition of a similar theme, I do like better; more lemony than thou, perhaps the most lemony perfume I have ever smelled, and I can somehow imagine myself walking into the teacher’s room one day in this on a bright day in June, and watching the now smiling heads turn in recognition, and pleasure)….
The recent Aqua Celestia, another example of the white masked ( I wrote white-musked initially, but Autocorrect changed it ‘for me’ – you have no idea how much I detest that invisible, always watching ‘intelligence’ – and I kind of liked it) perfume takes this idea to hitherto unclimbed, truly stratospheric heights; perhaps Monsieur MK’s most spectacularly clean scent so far, it is an aldehydic soap and ice mountain of fresh mint, lime, blackcurrant and mimosa over stalacticial musks that positively shimmers in its crystallinity and which made me yesterday, when I reacquainted myself with the range in Yokohama Takashimaya, where the collection has pride of place, briefly transport myself, snow-like, to some kind of beauteous, synthetic heaven. As I stood there among the hordes of shoppers and the fluorescent lighting, I was temporarily mind-wiped – and not unpleasantly. This initial impression is sheer perfection, and if I were to obtain a bottle somehow (not likely, given the price of the thing), but let’s say hypothetically, I can imagine myself, when the weather in Japan gets so hot and muggy and you fear your own bodily stench so strongly that you will do almost anything you can to ‘impart freshness’, I can imagine myself breathing this happily from my maniacally double washed white, shirts, hoodwinking those gladly inhaling around me that I am some kind of hyper-secure, upstanding citizen: :: a saint, with a heart of glass –
– -like the airbrushed, whitewashed, depilated congregation at the wedding that Lacie is so frenetically attempting to get to despite every conceivable thing going wrong for her, her ratings continually (and quite comically) getting lower and lower and lower with each disastrous encounter she has : : : a disastrous conclusion to what was supposed to be the ultimate success in social climbing. Poised, perfected, with just the correctly, judiciously applied amount of sensuality, you can imagine the 4.5 and above congregation at her old ‘best friend’s’ wedding in the odd, pert spritz of Kurkdijian’s A La Rose (a quite beautiful and dewy modern rose that will achieve approval wherever you go); the more prissy, for masculin, and feminine, duos of Amyris and Pluriel, beautifully crafted, as always, but which I am not very fond of (even when FK gets more sensual – and he undeniably does; after all, this is the man who created Indult’s Vanilla legend Tihota and Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, not to mention his own legendarily dirty Absolue Pour Le Soir; but even in these more carnal creations, such as the recent Grand Soir, an amber I rather like and would probably wear, even in these, they still have, somehow, those Kurkdijian parameters (and this is definitely a compliment as well as a criticism – something in me truly admires the deftness and civilising touches that the man’s perfumery brings), but yet.….even at their most ostentatiously sensual, they don’t ever, in my view, truly let go…..
As she staggers, one misfortune after another, towards the wedding ceremony, slapsticks in mud, shrieks hysterically, and loses every shred of her dignity and social standing, her ‘rating’ plummeting down precipitously through the threes and the twos to an eventual, inevitable, zero, Lacie (un)ironically does finally reclaim her real humanity, cursing and letting the truth out like a ‘madwoman’ and condemning her, in this cruel and mercilessly ‘perfect’ world at least, to a life of hopelessness and nothing. In keeping with the general tenets of Black Mirror – the ultimate message always seems to be that we are fated to be controlled (and eventually, destroyed) by the exigencies of the internet and the flawless surfaces of each persona- in terms of perfumery you might say also that in at least one urban sphere of the niche fragrance market that we are expected to inhabit – the innovative world of Francis Kurkdijian – you must always put forward a clear, diamond cut luminescence, a shield, almost, that keeps the chaos of the real biological body, firmly shut within. Hidden from sight. Denied. And while never less than compositionally impressive, and always immaculately presented, pinpointed and quite aesthetically stimulating for me, with each new release, these perfumes, in some ways, do also, bring the disturbing, inhuman future of Black Mirror just a little closer each time to reality.
16 responses to “BLACK MIRROR, AND THE PERFUMES OF MAISON FRANCIS KURKDIJIAN : : ABSOLUE POUR LE MATIN (2010), AQUA VITAE (2013), PETIT MATIN (2016) + AQUA CELESTIA (2017”
Although I have many MFK creations in my large collection, I have only one word to say regarding your post and critique: BRILLIANT!
I love Black Mirror and am afraid of watching it. I watch through fingers opened slightly in front of my face, almost. Perhaps it was the very first episode with the prime minister and the pig, that made me vow to never watch again. But then I did watch Bryce Howard in that brilliant episode of social controls. I have been brave enough to watch a few more, all disturbing, all very foreboding glimpsing at our current social media addiction.
And those bright, sheer, perfect daytime perfumes of Mr. Kurkdjian, like APLM, Aqua Celestia, and Aqua Vitae are made for more perfect, untarnished, and delicate folk, than me. They are very much, as you say, mathematically crafted. I admire him very much and got to spend an afternoon listening to him speak. What a disarming, handsome, charmer.
I own a bottle of the Absolute Pour Le Soir, and I marvel every time I wear a small spray. APLS is a person, bigger than me, who steps in and takes over, shoving me aside, daring all to come hither. I love it on my husband also, on him, it is even more magical.
This article has been a real treat to read, Neil. Brilliant!!!!
All this is so brilliant I think it is a little beyond my grasp.
I am here in my tiny rustic virtual-treehouse over the Pacific ocean, early morning and still dark, no light except for a scented candle and tiny white LED pinpoints in a miniature rose bush on the table, no sound except for the waves pounding on the beach underneath, cup of tea, propped up in bed in my pjs and dressing gown, top of one hand exuding Interlude Woman and the other Journey Woman, Amouage in some ways the antithesis of MFK: as complex, but resolutely natural, un-clean, human. I’m about as far away as you can get from the world of Black Mirror and Kurkdjian.
I don’t have Netflix but looked up Black Mirror on Youtube. No way a few clips and a trailer can allow the necessary immersion, unfortunately, and it might have been better to rely on your descriptions rather than feeling disconnected and remote from all the intense, futuristic action on the screen.
So I’m left feeling, unusually — frustratingly — unable to relate. It brings to mind a review of a couple of MFKs by one of your guest writers, compellingly written, so much so that I had to immediately procure samples of Oud Satin Mood and Oud Silk Mood. I just knew they would transport me into that state of intoxication that I’m always searching for and usually finding in the great old Carons, Patous, Guerlains, et al. But they failed. There was no emotional connection, just a sense of calculated, synthetic coldness and manipulation.
I’m not describing myself as well as I would like, but sending this off anyway, with an odd sense of inadequacy about all of this . . . hoping you might understand. Feeling strangely arcane. Or archaic.
This response is beautiful and utterly relatable. Thanks for writing it.
So much wanted to connect with you and with this piece, but it had to be in an honest way, and didn’t know how, and felt I would fail, and did, actually. Respect you so much, and wish I had Netflix to check out Black Mirror, which I think I would find fascinating.
I think you need to watch it, but then again you really don’t.
I know what you mean. xoxo
I’m thinking that technological/psychological dystopia is so in-my-face to begin with!
It already was, and Black Mirror really plays up to all of that, but makes you think of horrific possibilities that you hadn’t even considered as well. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch trying to link all this to FK perfumes, but somehow the link felt pertinent.
No, not at all; the link is apt.
I am too afraid to watch Black Mirror! I used to watch reruns of The Twilight Zone, and I was too creeped-out. If any of these dystopia scenarios ever do come true, I hope there will be a separate zone for people like me who never learned how to cut and paste on the computer, who still make scrapbooks, who still listen to record albums, who mainly use the internet to listen to old-time radio stations like WWOZ from New Orleans.
I have yet to watch Black Mirror. Must do! The best sci-fi is always a warning of some sort. Very intriguing how you relate these MFK scents to the series. Brilliant read! R
And I totally agree about the best sci-fi being a warning. This is the most terrifying prescient one I have ever seen. It really gets inside you (and there IS humour, too, to offset it all, even if it lingers in my brain at night.)
Really enjoyed this one Neil. I’ve watched all of the Black Mirror series and the episode about Lacie was probably my favourite, and yes I see the parallels to that glossed over world and MFK perfumes, most of which I’ve tested from the perfume dept at Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols – itself a weird glossy, ‘white-masked’ experience.
By the way, you might enjoy listening to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker on Desert Island Discs http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09kx840 , I relate to what he says about growing up in the cold war era of the 80s, when every plane overhead made us think of nuclear war, I think that climate of fear (partly western propaganda) created a generation of dystopians with a weakness for sci fi!
I think Brooker really captures the fakely saccharine quality of social media. I experienced this myself just the other day when I took a quick photo of a guy called Ashton who lives under a pile of bags and tarpaulin in a park just outside my house. He chooses to live there, folks have offered to take him in, homeless shelters (not to mention local church-goers etc) have offfered to help him find accommodation but he’s happy enough where he is. As you know the UK was hit by the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorms and sub zero temperatures recently, so myself and a few other locals made sure Ashton had flasks of hot drink and hot water bottles etc to see him through the freezing nights. I posted a message (and photo of the pile of bags though not of his face) on facebook saying a guy called Ashton lives here, he chooses to live outdoors but due to freezing weather might appreciate a hot drink, hot water bottle, maybe a cigar!
The response was weird, I’ve had about 250 shares of the post, and hundreds of ‘weepy face’ icons – when it was never my intent to make people feel pity, I know for a fact Ashton isn’t looking for pity! But people do enjoy their moment of weepy mawkish-ness on facebook. I found the response oddly depressing, that feeling of disconnectedness that Facebook ironically offers. For days I’ve had this steady stream of weepy face icons dropping into my notifications and it’s freaking me out!
Anyway, I love your description of Aqua Vitae, it’s one I’ve not tried on skin yet, and ‘matinal rapture’ is a great description of Absolue pour le Matin – uplifting purity, yet android-like, it conjures up a scandi-chic white loft bedroom with discreet technology and quiet wealthy types featured in ‘Homes and Interiors’.
My favourite was Lumiere Noire pour Femme, and I wonder if Catherine Deneuve’s influence lent it a more human or interesting quality (you probably know she collaborated with him on the making of that one). I agree there’s something highly perfected in the design of his perfumes, a bit like himself – he’s probably slightly OCD, but I do like watching him talk about the perfumes as you get a genuine sense that he loves his work, plus he has that gazelle-like sort of gracefullness!
Anyway, rambling now, thanks for another highly engaging post!
This response is at least as fascinating – I am completely in tune with everything you write here, and thanks for the link to the interview, which I will definitely listen to.
Those weepy faces are just SO bloody lazy (and stupid).