That German word….heavy with connotations, but also a common element of the vernacular. It makes anything seem more naughty that it might have sounded without its tag attached.
And yet, isn’t it very true that perfume lovers are “turned on” by smells? That they use them like a fetishist would use a high arched stiletto heel or a silky piece of lingerie (preferably après l’action)? And don’t perfume lovers have their own secret -or not so secret- liturgies and totems by which they swear by, able to produce feelings in them that they wouldn’t express in other arenas of their lives?
If we are to attach literary and cinematic references to those we should take a look at “Secretary”, a book that turned into a film in 2002, starring James Spader & Maggie Gyllenhaal. Directed by Steven Shainberg, it won the Special Jury Prize for Originality, 2002 in the Sundance Film Festival. If you do watch it or read the screenplay it’s not hard to see why; and also how it could be something difficult to recommend to a friend. Not because of any flaw of the film (It’s very well done! And with lots of wit!) but because of its difficult subject of a self-cutting troubled young woman, Lee, who gets employment at the weird of office of an S/M indulging lawyer with whom she falls in love (as he does as well). Romantic really at its heart, it explores all the real emotional pain of an individual who seeks to express inner angst to be told time and again by her puritan environment that this is not the proper way to go.
But the heart knows its own way and Lee ultimately has to make her choices. In a way it’s a coming-of-age film: as the young woman starts wide-eyed innocent she slowly realises her own strengths and merits through a relationship with someone who wants to make her find her inner strength in difficult situations, yet is also battling with his own demons.
Because of its urban and witty atmosphere, I would attribute the fetishy rubbery Black by Bulgari as their shared scent of choice. A sex in the head kind of perfume for metropolitan anchorites. Smoked lapsang tea leaves are crushed under a rubber gloved hand that is about to administer a spanking and you’ve entered a whole new realm of reality that you didn’t imagine it existed (with shades of the character of the narrator meets Tyler Durden in the notorious “Fight Club” from 2002).I find it fascinating that it is Angelina Jolie's personal favourite perfume, along with Carolina Herrera pour homme, as divulged in interviews. (Click here for a complete list of who wears what)
Another choice for the lead character might have been the elegant chypre that was instrumental in The New Look, Miss Dior by couturier Christian Dior. This is one scent that is always described as elegant, classy, discreet, the apotheosis of femininity. And yet, to my mind it holds the promise of naughtiness, like pristine tailleurs and bow shirts over lacy lingerie with ribbons down the sides, waiting for just that slip of the knowing finger that will untie them in a mere second. The green opening of young and fresh aldehydic greens with the lace of galbanum is met with flowery essences that blossom into a grown woman ready for the plucking, eager to explore the mysteries of patchouli, erotic labdanum and subtle leather. This is one girl who has come of age. Sadly now not up to its vintage magnificence although still passable.
And since we are talking about fetish who could omit the current queen of fetish in the US? Her eminence, the pale magnificence of burlesque performer Dita von Teese? With her homonymous book, she set out to show the world that her perfume choices are as many as her facets of sexual provocateur style (That wardrobe of scents includes her top favourite Quelques Fleurs by Houbigant, among the pleiad of JAR Shadow, Chantal Thomass, Stella Rose Absolute, Bvlgari Red Tea, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood Boudoir, Shiseido Feminite du Bois, Lancome Magie Noire, the ubiquitous Fracas and the notorious new classic Angel by Mugler).
Of all her choices Boudoir by Westwood seems to me the most appropriate one: although seemingly naughty, it keeps a pedigree of taste and old-fashioned elegance in its bubble gum rosiness and powder with a hint of tobacco flower and vanillic spice like a 50s centrefold that smiled at you from the pages of a tattered mag.
Of course it helps that Westwood was involved in the scene in the 1970s, producing fetish clothes in rubber and vinyl long before anyone else was savvy to those niche choices of attire, earning a place in the hall of fame of fashion avant-garde.
Nevertheless, apart from the frivolity and vagaries of fashion, one could delve much deeper into the abyss of fetishy obsession, going to the extremes of the classic 1976 Nagisha Oshima film “Ai no Corrida/Realm of the senses”. (it literally translates as Bullfight of Love). Based on a true pre-World-War II story that got published in a 1963 Japanese newspaper, it narrates the manic journey of a man indulging an engulfing passion with one of his female servants in a tale for steely nerves where angels fear to tread. No forbidden act is held and the film caused a ruckus when it first appeared on screens as it was rumoured that sexual acts took place for real and the finale was shocking in its climactic power.
For such a film only really strong, raunchy almost perfumes like Ambre Sultan by Lutens or Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein would suffice. Both orientals, rich in resins and ambery tones, they explore two different pathways of olfactory agony: the bitter and the sweet.
The herbal opening of Ambre Sultan plays upon culinary herbs such as oregano, bay leaf and myrtle giving a bitter edge that assaults the nostrils with the remnants of something half dead, half alive. It makes you question everything you have ever known, fanning resins that talk of far away lands where people indulge in rituals that might shock you. A primal call to carnal knowledge manifests itself in the labdanum rich base paired with benzoin and the whole is like watching the imaginary natives in Rapa Nui worshipping at the shrine of their holy ancestors.
Obsession for men (far superior to the women’s) on the other hand, although might be linked to the smell of a bombarded brothel, has all the sweetness of mainstream amber to render itself wearable and likeable by those who like it bold and 80s. Art directed by Ann Gottlieb, it came at a time when it was considered good to emit a little piss smell from your person. Shocking and disgusting as this might sound, it has been rumoured that it explored the same elements that make Miel de Bois by Lutens the derisive wonder that it is: love it or hate it, it can’t leave anyone indifferent.
Obsession to me is not the smell of seduction, but the memory of a familiar thorn in the side that pains you yet you’re not wont to pluck out.
Top pic of Angelina Jolie courtesy of celebritiesinc, pic of Dita vin Teese courtesy of dita.net