Saturday, January 12, 2013

Perfume Will Not Save You—Not Even Violet Perfume...

Ahora en español gracias a Gabriela Cortés!

reflections on 
Nadie te oye: Perfume de Violetas (2001), 
a film by Maryse Sistach*

The Story

Perfume de Violetas is set in modern-day Mexico City, where two adolescent girls, Yessica and Miriam, strike up an immediate friendship upon Yessica's arrival at her new school. She was expelled from her previous school for bad behavior and is generally strong willed, but her conflicts with authority seem to arise more often than not out of an abundance of energy conjoined with her refusal to docilely submit to bullies.

Yessica is a sensitive girl with a great joie de vivre and this is illustrated especially in the development of her friendship with Miriam. The first thing that Yessica notices upon sitting in the chair directly behind Miriam is that her long black hair smells wonderful. She looks at Miriam in awe from the moment of their first encounter, and from there on they become the best of friends.

Yessica lives in a poor part of Mexico City, so poor that the doors on her house, located below street level, are but hanging sheets, a clear indication that the family has nothing of value to protect from theft. Her mother toils her days away doing other people's laundry, and whenever Yessica is home, she is working too, either washing clothes or dishes, or caring for her mother's younger children. Her stepfather and stepbrother are stereotypical Latin macho males, and both seem to have little esteem for either Yessica or her mother.

As the friendship between Yessica and Miriam develops, the class distinction between the two girls becomes quite graphic. Miriam lives in a second-floor flat protected by barred windows and doors—what is typical for middle-class neighborhoods throughout Latin America. All of the bars may at first seem shocking to visitors from more prosperous countries where the general level of security obviates the need for such means. In upper-middle-class neighborhoods in Latin America, there are typically security guards stationed at street corners, and in especially affluent areas, each house may be individually guarded.

Miriam's standard of living would be considered closer to the working poor in the United States, as her mother works long days selling shoes at a Payless-type store, but from Yessica's perspective, Miriam lives in the lap of luxury. 

The first time that the girls go to Miriam's home, Yessica is filled with delight at the opulent sights of such “luxuries” as a refrigerator and a bathtub. The two girls indulge in a bath together, playing with bubbles and generally palling around. Aside from their mutual love of makeup and perfume, Miriam and Yessica are connected by the fact that neither has ever met her own father, having been raised by single mothers, although Yessica's is now remarried.

Throughout the development of their friendship, the scent of violets becomes a bind that ties the girls together. Miriam brings a bar of soap to school to let Yessica smell, indicating that it is the same scent which she noticed in her hair on the day they first met. 

At Miriam's house, Yessica is constantly spritzing herself with the liquids she finds in spray bottles. They look to be cheap drugstore-type perfumes or body sprays, but to Yessica they may as well be the nectar of the gods. The girls also play with makeup, and dance around when they are together after school, but the story takes a lurching turn for the worse one day when Yessica is walking back home alone after having spent time at Miriam's.

This harrowing scene, in which Yessica is brutally raped, was presaged by earlier conflicts. First, the girls had resisted the advances of Yessica's stepbrother and his friend, a bus driver, earlier in the week. In addition, Yessica and her stepbrother are in constant conflict back home, engaged in a relentless power struggle.

Shockingly, the bus driver grabs the girl as she is walking down the street and forcibly drags her to and throws her into his bus, which is parked in an empty lot. Meanwhile Yessica's stepbrother sits outside the bus, essentially guarding against any passersby who might approach and take note of what is transpiring inside.

The rape leaves Yessica badly bruised and battered. When she returns to school, the blood on her backside is noticed by some of the students during gym class. She is taken by the teacher to the school principal's office, where she is upbraided by both women, incapable as she evidently is of explaining what has happened to her. The principal looks eerily like Condoleezza “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” Rice, and she conducts herself with great hostility, verbally abusing Yessica and thus adding insult to her horrific injuries.

Despite all that she has been through, Yessica pulls herself together and manages to continue on, refusing to let her spirit be daunted.

 But the rape has taken its toll on the girl, and when she goes with her boyfriend to La Fuente, a sort of lovers' lane where couples apparently often meet to make out, she abruptly pushes him away when he attempts to touch her. She jumps up and runs off, leaving the boy behind puzzled by her behavior. Of course, it all makes perfect sense, given what recently happened to her.

Miriam and Yessica continue to pal around and at one point they are looking at hair ties at a kiosk when Yessica steals a small bottle of violet perfume which she seems to find irresistible. The girl runs away with the bottle, leaving Miriam behind to contend with the wrath of the shop clerk. 

Miriam pays for the perfume and, in a state of shock that her best friend could have done such a thing, she goes to the store where her mother works to tell her what happened.

Miriam's mother has been worried about the friendship from the beginning, having noticed among other things that the two girls were smoking in the apartment, which incenses her, given the difficulty she had in kicking the habit.

After his friend the bus driver raped Yessica, her stepbrother, who appears to regard the incident as having been humorous, warns her not to tell anyone what happened “or else...” He was offered and accepted money by the rapist for having stood guard during the violation, and he uses the money to buy himself a pair of fancy new athletic shoes. 

Throughout the film, the fascination which these relatively poor people have with commodified objects of desire is illustrated over and over again. Symbolically, it is Miriam's mother who sells the shoes to the young man, entirely unaware of his connection to Yessica.

The friendship between Miriam and Yessica has suffered a severe rupture because of Yessica's theft of the violet perfume, and the humiliation and shame it caused to Miriam. It seems as though there is no way to repair the damage done, but Yessica creates a collage of pictures of her and Miriam and returns to her house, expressing sorrow and regret at what happened. 

The girls are relieved to be reunited once again, and Miriam flouts her mother's counsel to have nothing to do with Yessica. She also lets her into the house, against her mother's prohibition.

While visiting this time, Yessica steals a roll of money hidden in Miriam's mother's jewelry box, which she gives to her own mother, who has complained over and over again about the family's financial woes. The stolen money had been saved up slowly by Miriam's mother from her low-paying shoe store job to buy a new television, and when she discovers that it is missing she becomes irate. At one point she launches into a tirade about Yessica, insisting that she is not only a thief and a traitor but also a tramp. Basically, her explanation of what happened to Yessica (the rape) is that “she asked for it.”

Unbelievably, the bus driver and Yessica's stepbrother abduct her yet again for yet another rape in the bus (and it appears that this has become a serial event, although only two of the incidents are shown explicitly in the film). This time, Yessica is dazed and confused and manages to make her way back to Miriam's house but finds no one there. 

All of the doors and windows have been chained shut to prevent anyone's entrance. When it starts to rain, Yessica hides under the stairwell, where she falls asleep.

The next day, Yessica manages to drag herself to school, where Miriam's mother has been meeting with the principal to discuss the thefts committed by Yessica—both the violet perfume and the money—and Yessica is summoned to the office, but two of the school staff members recognize what has happened to her (her knees are badly bruised and her neck is bleeding). 

At last, someone at the school acknowledges to Yessica that “No one has the right to do that to you.” While the girl is in the school infirmary, Miriam shoots a paper airplane through the window with a note telling her to meet her in the bathroom.

Yessica goes to the bathroom expecting a reunion with her friend. Instead, Miriam assaults her verbally, repeating the words applied to Yessica by Miriam's mother: thief, traitor, tramp! The two girls, both angry, get in a shoving match, culminating tragically with Miriam's death when she falls backwards and bangs her head on the porcelain toilet.

 Yessica runs away from the scene and heads back to Miriam's house where she lays down on Miriam's bed.

When Miriam's mother returns home that night, she finds the door ajar and is visibly worried about her daughter until she sees that her bed is occupied. She lays down next to Yessica, who is completely covered with a blanket in the darkness. Thinking that the person in the bed is Miriam, the mother is deeply relieved to have found her back home, safe and sound. The film ends with the phone ringing, a call from someone at the school bearing the horrific news of her daughter's death.


Perfume de Violetas is a depressing, almost nihilistic film. It is certainly an extreme example of film noir, albeit set in Mexico City, in that corruption suffuses the entire story. The only person among all of the various characters who appears to be entirely innocent is Miriam, who is killed as a result of all of the evil forces acting around her.

How might this tragedy have been averted? Perhaps only if Yessica had felt it possible to report the first rape as soon as it happened. She did not do so because she was living in a culture where the presumption was against females, who were to accept whatever was dished out to them. The behavior of females toward females throughout the film reveals that they, too, have been infected by insidious sexism.

My initial reaction to this film was that the ending was unduly and even gratuitously sinister, stretching credulity past its breaking point. The dénouement in fact reminded me a lot of what is probably my favorite film noir (also in blazing technicolor!): Plein Soleil [Purple Noon] (1960), directed by René Clément. The trauma which Miriam's mother will experience upon realizing that the girl in her daughter's bed is not Miriam, who is in fact dead, is truly painful to imagine.

The film is well made and well paced, covering an amazing amount of ground in only 90 minutes. It is clearly a low-budget production but is well directed, and the acting is also quite good. I was equally impressed by the artful selection and use of music. My primary gripe with the film was only that the plot was so horrible as to be too unrealistic. To my shock, I learned upon visiting (the Internet Movie Database) that Perfume de Violetas is based on a true story. So as unrealistically awful as the story was, it turns out that the events which it depicts really happened, which in some ways makes the whole thing even worse.

Perfume de Violetas is an important work. It highlights the living conditions of the poor and working poor in Mexico City and follows in a tradition of Spanish language film auteurs, including Luis Buñuel, who during his years in Mexico directed Los Olvidados [The Young and the Damned] (1950), a gritty black-and-white film also concerned with the plight of the poor of Mexico City, but people much worse off than either Miriam or Yessica (and with no access to or knowledge of perfume). Las Hurdes [Land without Bread] (1933), directed by Buñuel in Spain, also dealt with a much lower level of poverty than that depicted in Perfume de Violetas.

In this film, perfume plays an important role. Perfume is what first attracts Yessica to Miriam—or rather the scent of her hair, which has been washed with violet soap. Perfume serves throughout the story as a means for Yessica to escape from her own sordid conditions to a world of olfactory delight. 

Perfume represents promise and hope. It also serves as a salve to soothe the violated girl's pain. After having been raped, as Yessica attempts to get her wits about her, she refuses to be crushed but instead reaches for perfume, as though traveling to a fantasy world, where the evil people who mistreated her do not exist.

Perfume also serves as a temptation. Yessica steals the small bottle of violet perfume from the kiosk because she wants it so badly but has no money to buy it for herself. In this way, the perfume serves as a potential source of danger, for it causes Yessica to act in ways which disrupt the best thing she has ever had up until then: a friendship with a loving and kind girl who is so innocent that she does not yet make social and economic class divisions between different people.

Miriam accepts Yessica as she is, without questioning whether she is from “the wrong side of the tracks,” so to speak. Even when Yessica acts in ways which harm Miriam, she is able to forgive her. But in the end, she loses not only her friendship but her life, and that is why this film seems so nihilistic. The hope and beauty is all crushed, like Yessica's bottle of perfume by her angry mother, who throws it to the ground in a senseless display of outrage. In effect she says to her daughter through this gesture that she has no right to perfume, because they are poor.

What is the point of this film, for privileged perfumistas such as ourselves whose in some ways laughable monetary concern is whether we can afford the latest überniche luxury launch? How should we interpret this disturbing story?

To be honest, I sometimes wonder whether we are not living in a big fat scented bubble. When we complain about the price of perfume or bicker amongst ourselves over whether perfumery is an art, we are indulging in a luxury which is so far beyond the reality of most of the people on the planet, some of whose conditions are depicted in this film, that it verges on obscene.

Despite our elevated socioeconomic status—as evidenced by the fact that we are even capable of having perfume appreciation as a hobby—we are very much like Yessica in our fascination with perfume. We are willing to forgo other things in order to have our coveted perfume. But there is a positive message here as well.

In reality, it appears that we enjoy perfume in precisely the way in which Yessica does. Perfume is a source of pleasure for us, as it is for her. Does it matter whether we describe that source of pleasure in one way or another? Why can we not simply accept that perfume gives us pleasure? Why must there be more to it than that? Are we afraid of our own hedonism?

I also sometimes wonder whether the energy being currently directed to defend the claim that perfumery is one of the beaux arts is not disproportionate to what would be the consequences of that view, if it were affirmed by an elite few to be true. Clearly the experience of perfume by people such as Miriam and Yessica would not be altered in the least. 

Would our own appreciation of perfume change if we were to describe it in the lofty terms of some abstruse theory? I think not. We would still love perfume for precisely the same reason and in precisely the way in which Yessica does. Why? Because it smells good.

*Caveat: If you happen to number among the millions of persons currently attempting to wean themselves off SSRIs—having at last realized in what must have been a painful epiphany that it was all an elaborate ruse devised to pad the pockets of Pharmafirm CEOs while getting you to shut up—then I advise you to stay very far away from this grim, nearly nihilistic film.


  1. I always struggle over whether to watch this sort of movie. It sounds like it might end up haunting me years down the line like Requiem for a Dream. :( Great article, though.

    OT: Have you read White Oleander? I think you would enjoy it for the perfume references alone. Each of the major characters is strongly associated with a particular fragrance. Ma Griffe, L'Air du Temps and Obsession are the few that I can remember.

    1. Hello, Cryptic!

      I cannot believe that you mentioned Requiem for a Dream, which I only watched recently for the first (and obviously last...) time. My short review for that one was titled "Drugs are Bad. Okay, we get it." The images of that film are impossible to wrench from my mind, unfortunately. So I know exactly what you are talking about! I'd say that it's even worse in that regard than A Clockwork Orange, which permanently linked in my mind disturbing images with such masterworks of music as Beethoven's Ninth!

      I have not read White Oleander, but it needs to be bumped to the top of my queue! Thank you so much for the recommendation. In fact, I'll go request it from the library right now...

      As for Perfume de Violetas: I'd say that if you know Spanish and have seen the Buñuel films I mentioned, then you should watch this. I also feel that there is more of a reason to watch this one than Requiem because it depicts a gritty reality, not some hyperbolic dystopic nightmare in the mind of some writer. Also: you are not subjected to the repulsive physical sights (as in Requiem).

      All in all, I'd say that it serves as a pretty serious reality check with regard to, among other things, the status of women in Latin America.

      Thanks so much for your comment, Cryptic!

    2. No problem, Sherapop. I pulled out White Oleander this morning and realized that your article brought it to mind because an unnamed violet fragrance is worn by the most memorable character in the book. I don't want to spoil you with any more information in case you do read it. The author is Janet Fitch, by the way.

      I think I will watch Nadie te oye. Like most Americans, I could use a dose of harsh reality, and this particular remark hit home:

      "To be honest, I sometimes wonder whether we are not living in a big fat scented bubble. When we complain about the price of perfume or bicker amongst ourselves over whether perfumery is an art, we are indulging in a luxury which is so far beyond the reality of most of the people on the planet, some of whose conditions are depicted in this film, that it verges on obscene."

      Thanks again for your thoughtful writing.

  2. Thanks for the review Shera Pop! Although this movie sounds quite the opposite of a "night of entertainment", I think I would enjoy it, as I appreciate tragedies for the sobering effect, and I appreciate art that reflects the inescapable truth: not everything ends well,and sometimes there are no heroes.

    We are living in a scented bubble, but I believe that anything we give so much meaning to is just another "opiate of the masses". Sometimes these discussions of luxury are in favor of making perfume more available to the proletariat, and sometimes, these discussions that I have taken part in are self-aware. The obscenity of indulgence of luxury is an obscenity I feel no shame indulging in, but the obscenity of being complicit with the kind of oppression and class division in this film is much greater to me. The desire to speak truth to power, to question ourselves and see the capacity and the existence of vice in ourselves, and to take a stand against violence and oppression whenever possible is the only solution I see.

    1. You are most welcome, kastehelmi! Yes, the film is definitely worth watching. No Hollywood ending, obviously.

      You are right: there is nothing shameful about indulging in perfume, and I may have gotten a bit carried away near the end of my review. In fact, I basically agree with you that the "solution" is not to lead an austere life but to take a public stand when people are wronged and to be ever aware that social and economic injustices do persist, as does sexism, alas. This film highlights all three.

      Thank you for stopping by, kastehelmi, and if you do get a chance to see the film, please post your impressions here! ;-)

  3. Dear Shera

    I didn't know about this film, but I've enjoyed your essay.

    There's no doubt: we are privileged people. Not only because we are purchasing and sniffing niche fragrances but -before that- because we are able to think about this subject. We had have the opportunity to access academic education. For many people their main concern is how to get a meal every day.


    1. Thank you, Virginia! Yes, sometimes I can only scoff at the perfumistas who whine about the high price of perfume. It seems to me that they need to go visit a third world (or even a second world) country to see how very lucky we are as a result not of anything which we ourselves have done but only because of where we happened to have been born...


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