December 10, 2006

Perfume with Sniffapalooza and Les Christophs

I was lucky enough to get to go to an event which was very special, put together by the organizers of Sniffapalooza, Karen Dubin and Karen Adams. It was an early premiere showing of the film Perfume, with a presentation afterwards by Les Christophs, Hornetz and Laudamiel, of the coffret of perfumes they created based on the story. Their work was motivated purely by passion and enthusiasm; they began it after reading the book by Suskind, on their own time, long before the movie was made, for their own pleasure and to embody their own personal interpretations of the book's descriptions of scents.
The film was satisfyingly close to the book, and gave an intense depiction of the beauty and cruelty of early 18th century France. Some of the circumstances depicted reminded me of stories in the news about parts of Africa and Asia and South America today, where young children work very hard at dangerous jobs and there are extremes of abject poverty and luxurious wealth living side by side. So unusual to have the sense of smell take center stage, and I would have imagined it would be impossible to show how the experience of someone with an incredibly heightened sense of reality through scent as possessed by the main character, could be conveyed by visual means. This was accomplished with the story unfolding by focusing on details as well as by frequently drawing back to reveal the whole environment. The main character played by a relatively unknown young British actor, Ben Whishaw beautifully conveyed a persona both bold and shy, active and passive, refined and psychopathicly cruel, through the skillful use of the movement of a whippet thin body combined with the calm face of someone entirely preoccupied with his sensory experience through smell. It begins with an unusually gifted baby boy born to absolute poverty and neglect, without family, brutally used and exploited, who somehow survives until becoming aware that he is very different than everyone else in that he possesses an immensely acute sense of smell, on par with that of the most sensitive animals, and beyond. He realizes he has an almost supernaturally powerful sense memory and ability to discern and experience the full range of every element in every environment. This film, for once, is not one of those that can't compare with the original inspiration of the book. Don't expect a completely pretty historical costume period piece, though there is beauty both shown and implied, together with charismatic performances, there are vivid depictions of the very difficult ugly realities of the age. It's also kind of unnerving to find yourself sympathizing with a character who begins to practice psychopathic disregard for life in pursuit of his own obsessions.
As Christophe Laudamiel said, the movie could potentially have the effect of making the public much more aware of the sense of smell and its importance. Most people don't place much importance on that sense, or mentally habitually filter it out, because of the sometimes unpleasant aspects. The eyes and ears are the primary paths of information for most people, but the film shows that there is just as much information being sent to our minds and emotions through the sense of smell. He also mentioned that perfumers and fragrance companies now have immense untapped resources and materials, and that what is used in commercial perfumes are maybe only one third of what is available or what could be done. Les Christophs, as they say on their website, think of themselves as scentists, and predict that going forward into the future, there will be a far greater range of purpose and materials in the creation of scents of all kinds.
They gave us scent strips of the fragrances in the coffret to try, starting with Baby - very powdery and pure, milky and sweet, very pleasant clean and fresh. Then of course we all wanted to try Virgin #1, famously created with head space technology, using the belly button area of a young woman. This was also very pleasant and much stronger than I expected, having a scent of clean sweat with very subtle sheer plum wine upper tone and a creamy milky undertone; seamless without any dominant note, very realistically smelling like a human presence. There was the Sea, the most accurate olfactory rendition of the open ocean on a sunny day I have ever smelled of any marine scent, calming and uplifting at the same time. As the two Christophs said, the sea was one of the two smells the main character really liked most in the world, the other being the smell of the young red headed woman peeling yellow plums. Then they gave us Human Existence, which caused many of us to make a face and recoil, it was the exact smell of the unwashed body magnified by a factor of hundreds, like a dense crowd of people who only bathed once a year or so, intensely acrid... It's amazing, isn't it, how bad unwashed humans can really smell, no other animal can smell quite so bad if they don't bathe frequently. Then we had very high quality Jasmine Absolute, a natural material we don't often get to experience purely because it is so expensive and labor intensive to produce, in the coffret because this would be one of the materials typically used in the historical period of the film. The smell was so strong and complex and beautiful in its one note that it was completely restorative and engaging, like coming to your senses once again after spending a lot of time mentally engaged elsewhere. There was the new fragrance Aura, which will later be released commercially, that was made to envelop and project around the body, to enhance the natural scent of a person or any perfume they may wear. This was accomplished with the use of each of the main twelve families of scent, to build a bridge to anything else that may be worn. It will be released in a new form, as a silicone gel so that it may be worn over the body completely to create a thin invisible scent layer, like a subliminal scent skin.
The interpretation of Nuit Napolitaine, the perfected version of another successful perfume called Amor and Psyche, created as a way to prove the antihero's talent and ability, was presented to us as a perfume flavor, added to champagne. Lifting the glass flute to to the mouth brings the scent to the nose and then you get a subtle but very present impression of the wine perfumed with refined citruses, ginger and gentian. This concept of taking a perfume and making a flavor of it, to be added to food or drink, could be a new direction for perfumers to use for their talents, as the Christophs have done. I think chocolate and coffee could also be enhanced by certain deep oriental perfumes in small amounts, if that direction is pursued more frequently in the future, as I hope it will be.
The event was dense and rich on many visual, social and olfactory levels; new ideas in perfume were presented to an appreciative audience. The Karens did a wonderful job, as usual, giving this rich experience to their perfumista friends.
Les Christophs website is at www.LesChristophs.com
Sniffapalooza is at www.sniffapalooza.net
The only place the coffret can be purchased is on site at www.perfume.thierrymugler.com/us/ which gives far more detailed descriptions of the elements and inspirations;
The official movie site is at www.perfumemovie.com with a trailer and a link to the coffret; it will be released December 27th.
The book is worth re-reading, see below for my previous posting on it.

6 comments:

sariah said...

Lucy - it's great to read your impressions. Isn't it strange to start to sypathize with a character who is essential a monster? Now I think of him as more of a "creature" than a human.

Here's a link I found on POL that I think you might be interested in:
http://www.nature.com/news/2006/061204/full/061204-10.html

Karen said...

Once again, a beautiful recap of the day. Your writing really helped give me some closure on this extraordinary event. It's been hard to stop thinking about it all! The movie was truly a work of art, and I enjoyed both the psychological and olfactory aspects of the story. Thanks for all the details about "Les Christophs" that I had apparently missed while handing out the scent strips. I'm passing along a link to your wonderful entry to Anna Gross who brought us the screening & perfumers, Emma Griffiths of Dart Group, and Les Christophs themselves. Thank you, Lucy!

Beauty Chick said...

I agree! What a wonderful day! I loved reading your recap and it made me think more on different aspects of the film and fragrances in the coffret. I do hope Aura comes out as a stand-alone scent - it was quite mesmerizing.

Lucy said...

Thanks, Sariah, for that link, it is a good clear explanation of a difficult subject. It was fun going to Barneys afterwards, too, and trying many of the scents you recommended...

Karen, your kind words are very encouraging. It was such a wonderful experience for us all. You two surpassed yourselves this time and ought to be very pleased with yourselves.

Beauty Chick - Yes, it will be exciting to find out what happens with the release of Aura and what the impact will be in general, of this different way of working with scent, as inspired by ideas from outside the world of fashion...

DavisMcDavis said...

Thanks for your description of the scents - I got a promotional e-mail for that coffret and I've been very curious as to how everything smelled, especially since I know I'm not shelling out $700 to buy one. ;-)

Lucy said...

Davis -- You must be on some very fancy mailing lists...I think the coffret is a real collector's item, some of the scents can't be worn, they are too extreme (Human Existence) and others like the jasmine absolute are more like samples for historical reference, to see what people actually wore back before perfumery became so involved with modern chemistry...