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    Image: The Scent of a Woman (Rex/Shutterstock)

    Sweet perfume: inside cinema’s fascination with scent

    8 January 2021

    There’s something intriguing about being asked to imagine what we can’t directly experience for ourselves. Perhaps this is why scent is such a pervading feature of cinema. It is, after all, a somewhat strange preoccupation for an exclusively visual medium.

    ‘The Christmas List’ – arguably the most underrated television Christmas film, and not just because it features Donald Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, in a sinister role – tells the story of Melody (Mimi Rogers), a perfume guru with an extraordinary nose for fragrance who works at a big department store in Seattle. Overlooked for a promotion, Melody finally gets the recognition she deserves when her friend and colleague forces her to display her perfume prowess with a blind scent test in front of their manager. She sprays random perfumes onto card while everyone watches agog as Melody accurately identifies each scent with ease. Melody matches customers to their future fragrances by asking a few simple questions (‘Favourite time of day: morning or night?’). It’s a happy, feel-good, low-budget film: thanks to a little Christmas magic, Melody finally gets everything she ever wanted.

    For a more acerbic perfume sales assistant, watch Joan Crawford in the film ‘The Women’. She plays a character called Crystal who is having an affair with the husband of one Mary Haines. Mary’s friends pay Crystal a visit at work, specifically requesting her services at the perfume counter. One friend remarks loudly to the other, “Here’s this new one, ‘Summer Rain’ the one Mary Haines is so keen about,” and goes on to say the name of Mary’s husband, Stephen, and his occupation, an engineer, to clarify it’s the same man Crystal is seeing. The friend then picks up another perfume in an enormous chiselled glass bottle and Joan Crawford says with a smile, “I wouldn’t think that one suggested your personality at all. It’s called ‘Oomph.’” The friend is outraged and picks a tiny bottle for 25 cents before receiving another cutting line from Crawford and departing insulted.

    Gene Kelly’s love interest also works behind a perfume counter in ‘An American in Paris’. He is trying to make it as an artist in the city when he meets Lise Bouvier (played by Leslie Caron) and falls in love with her. He goes to see her at the parfumerie to pester her to go out with him. Whilst there he helps another woman choose a scent.

    Emilia Clarke as carer Lou goes to Paris to buy a scent on the instructions of a man she looked after, Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), in the closing scene of ‘Me Before You’. In a moving letter, Traynor instructs her to go to L’Artisan Parfumeur in Paris and try the perfume Papillon Extreme as he tells her he thinks it will suit her best.

    In the final scene of ‘Scent of a Woman’, Al Pacino – a blind war veteran – correctly identifies the perfume of a woman passing by: “‘Fleur de Rocaille: Flowers from a brook.’” Of course, this is a film well-doused with perfume mentions. Al Pacino recognises an air hostess by her scent and when asked by his assistant and friend Charlie (played by Chris O’Donnell) how he could possibly know her name, explains: “Well, she’s wearin’ Floris. That’s an English cologne. But her voice is California.” He can even tell the brand of soap a woman uses when dancing with her. “You know, I detect a fragrance in the air […] Ogilvie Sisters soap.”

    James Bond has a similarly good nose. In ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, Bond (Sean Connery) is poured wine at dinner on a boat when he notices something suspicious: “That’s rather potent. Not the cork, your aftershave. Strong enough to bury anything. But the wine is excellent. Although, for such a grand meal, I had rather expected a claret.” The waiter (one of the villains of the piece, an assassin in disguise) falls for his bluff and makes an excuse about the cellar being poorly stocked with clarets. Connery replies that the wine he is drinking is in fact a claret before saying: “I’ve smelt that aftershave before. And both times, I’ve smelt a rat.” A fight ensues and results in both enemies going overboard, one set on fire, the other attached to a bomb.

    Poor Kevin McCallister gets a rude awakening of his own as to how potent aftershave can be in ‘Home Alone’. He is busy doing a little self-grooming as he mimes along to the song White Christmas, using his comb as a microphone, when he pours some Brut Original Aftershave into his hands before applying to his face. We can still hear the scream.

    Perfume is the naturally the go-to product for the great beauties of our screens as well. Just think of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly pausing by her pigeonhole in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ to splash on some scent before leaving her apartment; or Reese Witherspoon carefully spritzing on some Clinique Happy at her dressing table in ‘Legally Blonde’; or Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara gargling perfume to conceal the smell of alcohol in ‘Gone with the Wind’.

    Scent seems to be one of the oldest tricks in the film-making book. It tempts us into the sensory world on screen whilst simultaneously holding us at arms length. What could be more alluring than that?