…murderer apparently. Not what we would normally associate with scent of course. The first thing that comes in to my mind when you say the word ‘smell’ is the response my daughter Evie aged 7 gave when asked how she liked her new home in rural Somerset (where we had moved from Brighton). ‘It’s alright‘ she said ‘but it smells of poo‘.
However, we have been watching the 2006 film based on Patrick Susskind’s novel ‘Perfume’, published in 1985 (which I remember giving up on after only a few pages as it was, well, uuuugh..), whilst at the same time I have been battling with some writing demons and getting very little done. I have to confess I have been somewhat distracted by the very delicious Ben Whishaw in the lead role, which is a very unsavoury one. He is a man who murders in pursuit of the perfect scent. It apparently took a year to cast the lead, it being very difficult to find someone who could seem both innocent and a murderer. Whishaw is the perfect choice in that respect.
It is a dark and disturbing film, which deals with some difficult ideas. The main protagonist is a young orphan in 18th century Paris. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with a sense of smell that marks him out as a genius and he is apprenticed to a famous perfumier (played by Dustin Hoffman). He comes to realise, however, that he has no body odour of his own, a reason why he is shunned and mistrusted by many he comes into contact with. This sets him on his murderous path to procure the most perfect scent in an attempt to feel fully human. He succeeds in his quest, murdering 25 pubescent girls whom he believes hold the key to the scent. But still he cannot feel possessed of the spirit that allows him to love and be loved – ie. what makes someone truly human. I can’t give away the ending of course, but it isn’t for the faint hearted.
Now this is a movie (and of course a book) that may not interest everyone, it is very hard to watch. However it certainly set me thinking about what purpose our sense of smell has in our relationships with others and with our surroundings. In evolutionary terms we have come to be attracted to things that we believe smell ‘nice’ and repelled by those that we deem ‘nasty’, a survival technique that goes back deep into our ancestry.
There are those smells that always disgust us and evocative scents that always lift our spirits. Apart from those suffering from chronic hayfever, we like to fill our lungs with the smell of newly cut grass. In order to sell your house quickly (because we all make snap decisions like this) you must have real coffee brewing and bread baking in the oven. (A hint here – Yankee candles make this a lot easier). The response to such scents is possibly nostalgia and goes some way to explaining why parents love the milky, sweet smell of their babies. A best selling room scent is called ‘Baby Powder’….
For me, the smell as you take the first peel off a satsuma always makes me nostalgic for Christmas and if you take a peach and rub the skin against your nose it is truly the scent of summer. Rather less obviously, I am slightly turned on by the smell of methanol, the fuel used in Speedway bikes. Many a rather weedy looking speedway rider has become the object of my affections because of this inexplicable weakness I am sure.
But can this scented recognition of a person or place have more disturbing consequences? In ‘Perfume’ the products of the murderous experiments are presumably based on pheromones, those chemicals given off by us quite unwittingly, producing potentially amazing effects on those around us. Lots of experiments have apparently been done on the female response to male armpits. Apart from the fact that this is almost as disturbing as the film, I would suggest the Lynx effect wins arms down every time. I am also somewhat sceptical about how pheromones affect an office dominated by women, eventually synchronising their menstrual cycles. I suspect this relates more to the misplaced belief that the quality of a woman’s work is related to her hormones.
I have a good friend, Chris (he of the wurzlemeone blog) who is known as a bit of an alchemist when it comes to aromas. He has a way with essential oils, understanding the chemical messages each send to our brains, affecting our moods. Sitting at my desk at moments of high stress and tension, his blend including frankincense would always lift my mood. I have borrowed some of his books in the hope that a little of his magic can be learnt, but I suspect it is a gift.
So, what smell would you like to trace the perfect essence of, so that you could recreate it at any time to give you a lift? Is there a smell I haven’t mentioned that speaks to us in some universal way? I would rather you did not have to murder in order to achieve the desired result of course. Leave that to Ben Whishaw.