Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Interrupted by Death: The Lost Chanel

The road to hell is paved with the best intentions, a saying goes. Sometimes, it's not one's actions that prevent those intentions to materialize into good deeds however, but something more sinister, more unexpected intervenes; like the grim hand of Death, wiping out in one sweep everything, leaving behind only unfulfilled dreams, plans and unfinished projects. One such project was a commercial for Chanel for a new feminine perfume that was to be completed and aired by 2008 and as we have been talking about the new flanker of Cristalle yesterday and the two upcoming films about Coco Chanel's life the other day, it seems appropriate that we should tackle it now while the flow is running.
The fragance was meant to revolutionize the concepts of fragance families and the commercial was set to be directed by British-born director of Italian extraction Anthony Minghella (most famous for his work on The Talented Mr.Ripley, The English Patient and Cold Mountain). He died a year ago, at the premature age of 54, due to complications from cancer operation before being able to realize the project. The late artistic director Jacques Helleu was naturally involved, but preceding Minghella to his deathbed by a few months he was also absent during the final critical stages. Therefore this little rememberance on Perfumeshrine today is both to Minghella's honour ~exactly one year later to the day today~ and to show how an iconic brand visualises its inheritance as a constant memento of a sense of history; the rich history of Chanel.

I have been fortunate to be able to see the storyboards for the commercial and in its own way it tells its own story, shown here by the hand of illustrator Andy Sparrow. The script was to be written by author Michael Ondaatje (his is the author of the worthwhile novel, later filmed, The English Patient so the connection with Minghella was there), although the few tidbits that remain are not indicative of his undoubtedly smart would-be contibutions. The male lead would be Patrick Wilson and the female lead was to be negotiated between several options, including supemodels snatched up by other firms in the meantime or celebrity offspring. Nothing of all this materialized, so we can picture whomever we please in the cute, round face of the heroine with the slanted eyes under the bobbed hair.

The commercial opens on the 1920s Seine riverbank with a wideshot showing a most romantic Paris in period attire.

Two people meet under the lamps. He's buying flowers, she greets him.

They're embracing when he asks "Are you wearing perfume?"

"Yes, but it's a secret..."

The mystique of the elusive fragrance is left hanging in the air, almost whispered or not quite as they walk on past one of the many Parisian cafés, leaving us to dream a bit...

What the fragrance would be named or smell like never really revealed itself beyond the closed doors at le studio Chanel. It was a secret project, secretive like Coco heself liked to look at the audience during a defilé so she would tuck behind the famous mirrored staircase and she could see everyone's expression yet nobody could see her ~she also monitored the sales floor by looking at the mirrored staircase~ as the 1962 photo by Hatami or this Frank Horvart photo from 1958 on the left shows! The mirror notion is a symbol for a look into both the esoterica of one's personality in times of introspection as well as a reflection (an eidolon, if you please!) on the brand's own core. Magic is done with mirrors and fun-fairs are resplendent with transforming mirrors that reveal hidden dimensions and sides of one's look. Perfume can act like a mirror that can be accurate, or alternatively distorting in a grotesque or burlesque sense, depending on our own aspirations, humour and sense of self-constaint. It's no accident that mirrors play an integral visual and symbolic part in the latest Keira Knightley commercial for Coco Mademoiselle directed by Joe Wright!
The plain, austerely chic packaging of iconic Chanel perfumes is also a tabula rasa, a secret mirror on which to reflect one's own personality, inducing no preconceived evocations. Ikki Miyake's "No. 19 Susashi-Kotoba `Perfume,' " artwork shown at the Chanel Nexus Hall in Ginza as part of the DanDans exhibition, was a whimsical play on the Chanel perfume bottle; yet it captures Chanel's secret quite well. The secret is that we can mentally squeeze ourselves into a chic Chanel flacon much like the model is being immersed in one on this stiking photo.

Please read a moving tribute to Anthony Minghella by his three-times collaborator Jude Law published in the Obsever last December.

Thanks to Andy Sparrow,, shelterinteriordesign blog


  1. Hi E, what a lovely post.

    I feel like I miss Anthony Minghella and I didn't even know him.

    I am in no doubt that his commercial would have been wonderful and touching.

  2. It appears that Madame Coco intuitively understood something about quantum physics, that the very act of observation changes the outcome of an experiment. She must have felt that her presence would bias an audience's reaction and prevent her from seeing an authentic response. But there is also something a little paranoid, a little controlling about it, and a little flawed. It is ultimately impossible to escape observer bias. Each of us brings to each observation a cumulative history of experience and probabilities of outcome, which influence greatly the perception of the outcome. When the waveform of possibilities collapses into one outcome at the moment of observation, we are much more likely to "see" the outcome which conforms to a plausible storyline. The photo of her in the stairwell is fascinating -- it reveals both her vulnerability and her drive to control. Thanks for the this wonderful post.

  3. That is fascinating and absolute news to me, helg. What an interesting post post! The picture of Madame peeking on the stairs through the mirror is a work of art itself and revealing! Agree upon its psychological inherences.

  4. K,

    he was quite talented and I felt he had a genuine grasp for landscape and the beauty of a place, so I can imagine how wonderful Paris would look under his direction. (the Ripley movie is very Italianato in its love for the place).
    May he rest in peace...

  5. S,

    thank you for your comment and compliment.
    Perhaps Mademoiselle's both matter and "radiation" played a role at how her collections were perceived (she had a stern look in her older age, hadn't she?), thefore she was eager to let the quanta act uninterrupted? I love your theory!!I can't but agree that we have a perceived body of aspirations and thoughts that influence the outcome of many of our experiences. It's happening all the time and it's palpable on so many things.

  6. N,

    thank you :-)
    I am quite certain that no one is aware of this project besides those involved, so I can understand how surprising it might seem. I was lucky.
    Regarding Chanel looking on the mirrored staircase, that photo is so revealing of both her insecurities and her desire for knowledge and control that it is the stuff of (hidden) legend: Mademoiselle knew exactly what she was doing and I agree with Scott above that there is some manipulation of energy going on there!


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