Saturday, July 12, 2014

Plus ça change: Perfume and Morality in Le Corbeau (1943), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

It is rare to happen upon a great movie among recent releases. Long before the decline of the movie theater, I adopted a strategy to protect myself from the flood of mediocrity pouring out of the Hollywood faucet. I simply stopped watching first-run movies. I still enjoyed going to the cinema, but I'd stick to revival houses or places like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I've been known to watch the entire French Film Festival. (It is held every summer over a two- or three-week period.) For most of my film viewing, I have depended on rentals: DVDs, and before that video tapes. This strategy is much less safe today, as many DVDs are now released within weeks of live screenings, so lots of "stuff" not worth watching is always mixed in with the greats when I peruse the shelves at the Cambridge Public Library, which has supplanted Netflix as my primary source of films.

I've noticed of late that there seems to be a trend going on in movie-making similar to the one I've witnessed in publishing. Movie makers and authors appear to be landing contracts before producing works, and then when deadline time rolls around, they sometimes have to hustle to get the thing done. In movies, there seems to be a further factor involved. A number of productions starring big names start out pretty decently, but then seem to end prematurely, as in twenty or thirty minutes before the standard Hollywood mark of two hours. It's not that the works are finished--they are not. Instead, they are hurriedly wrapped up, it seems, with a makeshift dénouement thrown together to get the job done sufficiently to satisfy the terms of the contract. 

My hunch is that in the case of inadequately incubated films the moviemaking team (and these days they are huge, by the way) has exceeded their budget, and the big names in question probably have better things to do, other commitments, even if the producers were able to pull together the extra cash needed to keep them around. I've read many books in the twenty-first century with similarly weak endings, relative to the quality of the opening pages and chapters. It's as though the author has simply run out of steam but is obligated to sign off on the thing by a certain date and so rushes to finish it up. Many books published today also appear not to have been edited. 

Needless to say, I find these trends regrettable, though fully comprehensible in this highly capitalized world. Nearly everyone seems to be more interested in the outer packaging and hype than in the content and form. Similar dynamics appear to be affecting the perfume industry as well. The sheer number of new launches each year virtually guarantees that many of these fragrances have been rush jobs. What else could they be, with flankers running rampant? Anyone who does not believe that most flankers are trivial probably has not given enough of them a sniff.  Not that I think that it's olfactorily worthwhile for anyone to do so.

I imagine that serious perfumers working for the conglomerates may be a bit jaded by now, given the tough budgets, low-grade materials, and IFRA restrictions all conspiring to impose severe constraints on their creative output and ultimately reining in their heartfelt desire to produce something great. Some among them may think of themselves more as hacks than as persons in a position to realize their olfactory dreams through the launch of a masterpiece. Not going to happen, if the creator has to come up with a "new" scent by cobbling together a bunch of inferior "stuff" determined by marketers to be in demand among Jill Q. and Joe. Q Consumer.

I've been thinking about old films and old perfumes and old books recently--and also old tea (pu-erh), but I'll save those thoughts for another day. Unlike vintage lovers, who worship most any perfume launched pre-Y2K, I do not believe that something old is automatically better than anything new. It's just not true. There were plenty of mediocre books published in centuries past about which we know nothing because they have been essentially forgotten. Some of them were bestsellers back in the day, but they have not stood the test of time. The problem for perfume, of course, is that it degrades and fades away, so we can never really know what it was like when it was launched. All we have are surviving bottles, and all we can do is hope that they reflect in some way the intended scent of their creator. 

I do believe, however, that the percentage of excellent perfumes in the twentieth century was much greater than today. That is not because I prostrate myself before all things said to be vintage. No, not at all. It's a recognition of the fact that many more perfumes are being produced much more quickly and using much less natural material than ever before in the history of perfumery. A big part of this trend has to do with who runs the show. The head honcho at Procter & Gamble gets the last word on the scent of shampoo and deodorant and also perfume. 

Aren't they all really just variations on a theme? A toiletry is a toiletry by any other name.

A toiletry by any other name would smell as clean.

That's the sort of wisdom I imagine bubbling up in the mind of the CEO of a megaconglomerate such as P&G. Everything they produce, at the end of the day, is a source of profit, no more and no less. The key to maximizing profit in the perfume arena appears to involve, the savviest of marketing strategists have figured out, persuading people to believe that they really prefer to smell clean and abstract, not complicated like real flowers and other natural substances, but streamlined and simple. The perfume equivalent to SSRI happiness. Don't worry, be happy. And if you begin to entertain ever so faintly the idea that there might be something awry somewhere in the universe, something which you might set out to do something about, our culture tutors you to Shut it out, which is remarkably easy to do these days. Take a chill pill. Literally.

What about old movies? Are old movies automatically better than new movies? Well, not automatically, but they have stood the test of time. If people are still watching them seventy years after they were produced, then there is probably a good reason for that. 

With that rather circumlocutory introduction, I would like without further ado to commend to your attention a film which I only just discovered, though it was produced way back in 1943:

Le Corbeau [The Raven] 
directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The first clue that this film is worth watching--aside from sherapop's enthusiastic recommendation--is the fact that Le Corbeau was reviled by the Nazis, the Partisans, and the Catholic Church! This film is so modern, and so intelligent, and so well-paced, and so complete and fully incubated that it would bear your sustained attention even if it were not also beautiful. This work is not, as you may surmise, a movie version of the classic narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe, many of whose texts, for your information (in case you didn't know) were translated into French by the equally great Charles Baudelaire. 

Instead, Le Corbeau offers a rather La Rochefoucauldian (or is it Maupassantian???)  morality tale using a long concatenation of multivalent metaphors. The setting is St. Robin, "any village", and the residents present the complete range of human qualities: the good, the bad, and above all, the ugly.

The main character is the dashing Dr. Germain, after whom every single woman--and some married as well!--lusts. You know the drill: a handsome doctor who happens also to be an eligible bachelor! Sound familiar? Plus ça change. 

Salon de Parfum readers may by now be growing restless. Has sherapop lost her marbles? Isn't this supposed to be a perfume blog? 

Calmez-vous, mes chers amis. Indeed, I have brought this film to your attention not only because it is a masterful representative of several genres of cinema simultaneously, but because it further features the following scene in which perfume is touched upon in an incredibly modern way--remarkably relevant to what we are seeing in contemporary society today.

Dr. Germain has been summoned to examine Denise, a young woman with a decidedly femme fatale demeanor and a snarl that could give Sid Vicious a run for his money. Denise is bedridden, where she is painting her toenails and smoking, for want of anything better to do:

Upon hearing the doctor knock at her door, Denise immediately buries herself under the bed covers, though it is clear that her wet polish must be smearing the sheets.

She extinguishes her cigarette in an ashtray located conveniently next to an open bottle of champagne. She then begins to cough and deploys her most feeble-sounding voice to instruct the doctor to enter her chambers.

Before commencing the examination, Dr. Germain rushes to shut the windows, as the sound of the children yelling in the courtyard is grating on his nerves.  He then pauses for a moment, sniffs the air, and asks Denise whether she is wearing perfume.

Denise replies, "You don't like it?" To which the doctor curtly retorts that he should have left the windows open. 

Why is this exchange so interesting? First of all, because the scent which displeases Dr. Germain is in all likelihood a commingling of smoke from Denise's recently extinguished cigarette and the fumes of her wet nail polish. Perhaps she is also wearing Chanel no 5 (apparently all the rage at that time), but surely those two strong non-perfume odors would still be hanging in the air and dominate the space. 

Dr. Germain, in other words, is a member of the perfume police, who bristles at the slightest detection of any scent which he can denounce as foreign and unnatural. He simply assumes that the odor in question is perfume, for he is opposed to the very idea of perfume, whether beautiful or ugly.

For Dr. Germain, perfume is a part of Denise's slutty lifestyle. Her reputation precedes her, and the good doctor soon discovers that she has no illness whatsoever. This house call was only a pretext for a physical examination! While putting his stethoscope away in preparation to depart, Dr. Germain brusquely informs the young woman that she has no need of a doctor--at least not one like him, the snide insinuation of course being that she needs to see a shrink.

Rather than spoil this fabulous work for you, let me simply assuage any concerns you may be having about what is going to transpire between these two comely characters. A bit later, Denise has a second chance with Dr. Germain, and this time, she takes a slightly different tack.

In the end, the much larger mystery, of who is sending the townspeople letters filled with the juicy details of all their viciousness, is solved. But to find out the rest of the story, you'll have to watch the film!

"Parce que c'est aussi bête que ça: 
Je t'aime."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Perfume Journalism Achieves a New Nadir? The New York Times Strikes Again...

Many Mini Bacon Cheeseburgers

Perfume features are so rare at the New York Times that I found myself astounded to receive two email alerts within a two-week span. Last week's "news" was a market spot for a new fragrance and body product line at Target. This week? It must be the most poorly written, aimless, contentless, and utterly unedited piece of nothingness in the entire history of the New York Times. The critical thinker and blogger sherapop exhorts all salonistas to read for themselves the article incomprehensibly titled "Fragrance Foundation Awards: Glory and Aromatherapy":

The fashion editor Carine Roitfeld scanned the lobby at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening. She was there for the annual Fragrance Foundation Awards (formerly nicknamed the FiFi awards), and it was cocktail hour, before the ceremony. Ms. Roitfeld was mostly left to herself.
“I don’t recognize a lot of people, and they don’t recognize me, either,” she said.
Compare this to the scene two weeks ago when the Council of Fashion Designers of America held its annual awards ceremony in this same space: it was packed with photographers, designers, editors and celebrities like Rihanna and Solange Knowles. Ms. Roitfeld would have been mobbed then. And though the fashion world and fragrance world overlap plenty, this was a bit easier to navigate.
“You have a little room here,” said the model Coco Rocha, wearing a Zac Posen organza bustier gown and, she said, id [sic] her own fragrance (“The name of it?” she said. “We’re not sure yet.”)
Indeed, there was plenty of jostling to find out who, well, smelled best.
“Everyone smells good at both,” said Marisa Tomei, comparing it to a Hollywood event. “Maybe it’s a little more unique here?”
Outside Alice Tully, a swath of the city had all eyes on the United States World Cup match (a victory over Ghana), being played during the cocktail hour. But this was a John Demsey crowd in a Clint Dempsey world. (For the uninitiated, Mr. Demsey is the group president of Estée Lauder Companies).
A little after 7 p.m., attendees shuffled into the Alice Tully theater for the ceremony. Victoria’s Secret and Ralph Lauren Fragrances were the big winners, with three awards among them (Ralph Lauren and L’Oréal for Polo Red, Victoria’s Secret for Victoria by Victoria Secret and a men’s cologne).
The actor Michael C. Hall, the model Hilary Rhoda and the actress Angie Harmon were among those who presented different awards. Their duties were not complicated. They each announced the name of the category and the winner (“It is my honor to introduce the finalists for interior scent collection of the year,” Ms. Tomei said, quite convincingly) while a faceless female voice actually rattled off the nominees, many of which included difficult-to-pronounce French perfumes.
Dana Carvey hosted the proceedings (his second year in a row). He relied on some familiar routines — it only took a few minutes before he broke into Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush impressions. And even he admitted it was a little odd that he was here.
“I must be so exotic to this audience,” Mr. Carvey said after the show. ““Like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Half the crowd, English must be their second language.”
As the show ended, dozens of guests made their way to a sidewalk plaza for mini bacon cheeseburgers, an open bar and a cigarette break. There was actually lots of smoking, concealing plenty of carefully selected fragrances. “Very European, huh?” Mr. Carvey said.
If there was one star everyone wanted to meet at the end of the awards, it was Gwendoline Christie, also known as Brienne of Tarth from “Game of Thrones.” A throng of well-wishers waited patiently in line to get a photo taken with her and congratulate her on a gritty performance from the season finale, which was shown the night before. But one guest, who had gray hair and wore dark sunglasses, had just one question for the actress, who loomed over every person in the room.
“I’m sorry, but how tall are you?” she asked.
“I’m 6-foot-3, but I’m wearing five-inch heels tonight, so,” Ms. Christie said, smiling.
The guest walked away nodding her head.

Well, I'll second that!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trickle Down or Wash Out? Niche Perfumery Takes a Hit--From the New York Times!

I subscribe to "Perfume News" from the New York Times, which seldom arrives, and on the rare occasion when it does, usually turns out to be a press release about a new mass market fragrance or line which somehow made it past the gatekeepers who presumably determine what does and does not constitute news. It's not that surprising, really, given that the perfume industry is an intrinsically hype-ridden zone. The "critics" (I mean the ones who earn money for writing about perfume...) are shills; the perfumers are often hacks. Big corporations--above all, LVMH, Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, and Coty Prestige--continue to gobble up small houses and are, needless to say, profit driven. What's new in any of that?

Yesterday's NYT Perfume News, "Trickle Down Fragrances: Mass-Market Perfumes Developed by High-Price Noses," was remarkable in that it not only shilled for a new perfume line, the Sonia Kashuk Collection for Target, but also directly attacked the niche perfumery enterprise, claiming that comparable perfumes can be had for a fraction of the cost:

Perfume lovers can now buy a deeply scented bottle of a new eau de toilette, blended with natural oils of sandalwood and jasmine absolute sambac, both imported from India, formulated by the French-trained perfumer who has worked on scents from luxurious niche brands like Atelier Cologne, which last year introduced a pair of fragrances in sleek glass bottles infused with either gold or silver, retailing at $195.
That earthy scent, called Red Promisia, costs $19.99 and is sold only at Target.

Am I the only person to question, first, whether this is news and, second, whether any of it is true? Let's consider four more specific questions, since comments were not allowed on this "news feature" at the New York Times:

  1. Isn't Indian sandalwood in short supply? Isn't that part of the reason why Guerlain Samsara was reformulated?
  2. Isn't jasmine absolute restricted by the IFRA? Isn't that another part of the reason why Guerlain Samsara was reformulated?
  3. I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Atelier Cologne, but don't their $195 bottles hold a full 200ml? 
  4. Finally, who is Rachel Helder, and for whom does she really work?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Must-Sniff List ... Entries 41-45

Introduction (and entries 1-5)Entries 6-10Entries 11-15Entries 16-20Entries 21-25Entries 26-30Entries 31-35; Entries 36-40

Today's entries (41-45):

1. Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose: because this was the winner in the war of Malle roses (pace Couture Guru)!

2. Comme des Garçons Avignonbecause it's the best of the sacred incense series!

3. Lalique Amethyst: because black currant is your hot weather friend!

4. Keiko Mecheri Loukhoum Eau Poudrée: because not all doughnut shops are alike!

5. Natori Natori (eau de parfum from 2009): because this Parlux production is not mall juice but an excellent new old lady perfume!

Running Tally

Below is the complete list alphabetized by house. The tally will grow by five perfumes for each blog post. Please note again that the numbers within a given post reflect only the fact that these perfumes popped into my mind in that order. Not an objective ranking or even a subjective ordering of my preferences--just what I happened to think of! To offer a bit of insight into how I arrived at my seemingly emotive exhortations, I'll link my latest review from sherapop's sillage for each of the perfumes:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Must-Sniff List ... Entries 36-40

Introduction (and entries 1-5)Entries 6-10Entries 11-15Entries 16-20Entries 21-25Entries 26-30Entries 31-35

Today's entries (36-40):

1. Gianfranco Ferré Ferré (eau de parfum from 2005): because every time I don this designer perfume, I am reminded of Frédéric Malle Iris Poudré--also created by Pierre Bourdon!

2. Hermès Calèchebecause I have already drained three 100ml bottles of this jus divin!

3. Puig Agua Lavanda: because you can't judge a lavender cologne by its ugly plastic jug!

4. Parfums Berdoues Violettes de Toulouse (eau de toilette or eau de parfum, comme tu veux!): because everyone needs at least one nineteenth-century violet soliflore!

5. Van Cleef & Arpels Muguet Blanc: because Dior Diorissimo and Coty Muguet des Bois have been the victims of identity theft!

Running Tally

Here's the complete list alphabetized by house and which will grow each day by five entries. Please note again that the numbers for each day reflect only the fact that these perfumes popped into my mind in this order. Not an objective ranking or even a subjective ordering of my preferences--just what I happened to think of! To give these posts a bit more content, I'll link my latest review from sherapop's sillage...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Must-Sniff List ... Entries 31-35

Introduction (and entries 1-5)Entries 6-10Entries 11-15Entries 16-20Entries 21-25; Entries 26-30

Today's entries (31-35):

1. Tom Ford Black Orchid: because there is no other perfume like this in the world!

2. Clinique Aromatics Elixirbecause a company whose raison d'être is the production of fragrance-free skincare and cosmetics managed to create one of the greatest perfumes ever! Note: let it settle before jumping to any conclusions...

3. Jean-Charles Brosseau L'Ombre Rose: because this powdery rose smells great--against all expectations, given the price. The bottle is beautiful, too!

4. Lalique Encre Noir: because this is clearly Darth Vadar's signature scent! Also a great introduction to iso-E-super...

5. Sama Ambre Rose: because not all contemporary perfumers are lying prostrate before the IFRA!

Running Tally

Here's the complete list alphabetized by house and which will grow each day by five entries. Please note again that the numbers for each day reflect only the fact that these perfumes popped into my mind in this order. Not an objective ranking or even a subjective ordering of my preferences--just what I happened to think of! To give these posts a bit more content, I'll link my latest review from sherapop's sillage...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Must-Sniff List ... Entries 26-30

Introduction (and entries 1-5)Entries 6-10Entries 11-15Entries 16-20Entries 21-25

Today's entries (26-30):

1. Annick Goutal Eau d'Hadrien: because summer is just around the bend and we all--guys and gals alike--need a spritz of this citrus-cypress perfume refreshment!

2. Pierre Balmain Balmainbecause this is a great unisex fragrance waiting for you to discover!

3. Caron Narcisse Noir: because though my bottle contains a reformulation, I love it all the same!

4. Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles: because when I discovered that my tester bottle of this rich and intense oriental perfume had evaporated due to a faulty nozzle, I nearly cried!

5. Kenzo Jungle L'Eléphant: because sometimes a herd of elephants is desperately needed!

Running Tally

Here's the complete list alphabetized by house and which will grow each day by five entries. Please note again that the numbers for each day reflect only the fact that these perfumes popped into my mind in this order. Not an objective ranking or even a subjective ordering of my preferences--just what I happened to think of! To give these posts a bit more content, I'll link my latest review from sherapop's sillage...