Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frequent Questions: What's the Perfume Featured in "Single White Female" movie?

Viewers of that 1992 cult little thriller "Single White Female" staring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh remember the delapidated NYC building, shot to reference the trilogy of apartment-house thrillers by Roman Polanski, and the plot which culminated into an early 1990s phenomenon. Summary? An ad for a roommate brought a stranger into Allison's life. Someone who shares. Someone who cares. Someone who borrows. Someone who steals. Someone who would kill to be her. A clinging, duplicitous psycho roommate all right! Viewers with a perfume interest however have long been perplexed on which perfume is featured in one memorable scene:

Allie brings a housewarming gift to Hedy, the psycho (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Upon inspecting her dresser, a bottle catches her eye; she handles the beautiful perfume bottle, sniffs off the top and dabs some on her wrists and neck. Hedy, who had been taking a shower in the adjoining bathroom, walks in on her, immediately perceives the scent in the air and comments on its use. Hedy will then proceed to offer earrings as a thank-you-in-turn gesture to Allie.
Allie:You haven't even been here two weeks and I'm already in your room.
I was just about to go through your drawers.
Hedy: That smells nice on you.
Allie:I always wanted to try that.
Hedy: Sure, anything you want. Share and share alike.
Allie:I don't really know about that. I'm an only child.

The perfume on the dresser in said scene is in a light blue, cylindrical bottle, made of opaline by the looks of it. Theories on what it might be have abounded on perfume discussion boards for years; it's a recurring question to which no one had a definitive asnwer. Till now.
A freeze-frame on the video or DVD (a common enough practice for "crazied perfumistas") reveals that the bottle is tagged "Moi Même" which, myself. Given the particular context of the film, in which director Barbet Schroeder explores the subjects of what constitutes identity and the implications of identity theft (through subtle and less subtle means pertaining to appearence, comportment and later play-acting), I had assumed it was a made-up perfume prop for the purposes of the film.

The cohabitation continues and things start getting weird. As Allie reunites with her cheating fiance, Sam, Hedy has in the meantime becometoo clinging. She will try to break up the re-united couple ~in an effort to make Allie keep her as a room-mate instead of leaving with her fiance~ by sleeping with him while pretending to be Allie. She uses perfume to sneak up on Sam, aiding to convince him in the dark of the night that she's really Allie.
Hedy:Guys like you don't change. You can't be faithful. And now she'll know.
Sam: She'll know what? That you came up here and pretended to be her?
What is this hair? You're in her clothes. You're wearing her perfume!
The nuances of "stealing" someone's signature scent, like in that scene in the film, had provided the content for another essay on Perfume Shrine (which can be found in the link). At the time I had written:
"Copying someone's identity in its external manifestations and even their intellectual interests, emulating their fashion sense, their hairstyle, their makeup and colour choices and suddenly adopting the same music sense and book material can feel annoying and a little alarming for the one who is being copied: is it to be taken as a compliment or as an invasion of private space and the right to mark one's own territoty? That last part seems to me to be at the bottom of this particular annoyance. Although we have progressed from the jungle, the jungle hasn't left us: we still need to mark our territoty with the invisible olfactory stain of our id. And we do that with our loved ones and the scents we choose for them as well."
The context of that post still applies, but research has since revealed to me that the perfume in the dresser scene isn't made-up after all. On the contrary.

Two French companies have been producing perfumes by the same name: Desti* of Paris had a Moi Même fragrance launched in 1914 and Cyber, the producer of the semi-eponymous Cybera, launched another by the same name some years later. They're both art-deco scents in similar period-style containers and they would fit the context. The art director must have studied catalogues from antiques auctions or happened upon the beautiful opaline flacon browsing in some antiquerie. Certainly an art-deco bottle matches exceptionally well the art-deco building which is really the third protagonist in the film. What originally seemed random and superficial is revealed to be clever and fully intentional. More than a pretty prop, the signature scent in Single White Female stands as a meaningful and transient metaphor of self.

*In the same year, 1914, the company of Desti of Paris launched another 5 fragrances: Beatrice d'Este, Devinez (=Guess), Lilas, L'Invitation à La Dance and Saphir.


  1. Anonymous15:10

    Fascinating post. To be reminded of that movie brought me back to my early twenties in a flash. :)
    I love to discover such tiny details that make you aware of the care that went into making a film. Moi, Meme is truly fitting and a perfect symbol for the developing plot.

  2. Anonymous20:54

    fun, fun, fun!

    creepy movie! in high school, there was a girl who would copy me - my haircut, my clothes. it was a little odd because we barely knew each other. i was a bit of fashion trendsetter back then, so it was kinda fun to have a follower of sorts. she wasn't built or colored like me, so i'm not sure anyone else noticed what she was doing.

    i can't say i have a signature scent right now, but i certainly have longtime favorites, like femme de rochas, that i feel emotional and territorial about! i also have some hoity-toity scents, like my frederic malles, lutens, chanels, and my fave cartier, l'heure mysterieuse, that i don't really want to smell on anyone else.

    actually, i'm a total scent snob in that i don't want to smell something i consider "mine" on another person. maybe that's one reason why i'm so into vintage and odd scents? hmmmm...


  3. Ah, yes...roommates. I had one who wore enough "Georgio" to sink a ship and thought 8 x 10 glossy photographs of rock stars was a good decor theme, another who'd starve herself all day and then eat a giant chocolate bar, and a third -- a short-term sublet -- who thought we were friends and would show up on my doorstep, unannounced, for the next 20 years! I had to move cross-country, leaving on forwarding address, to get rid of her. She'll probably find me online one of these days, though.

  4. B,

    indeed it's as much transporting (since it's such a characteristic piece of the times) as it is indicative of care woven into the plot.
    Glad you enjoyed. There are hundreds of perfume mentions in films and some of them are extra good.

  5. J,

    it was quite creepy, wasn't it? I especially love that moment when the two girls go into the hair salon and JJL comes down the stairs sporting the exact same haircut and colour as BF: the scene is chilling! And all because there was anticipation built till that moment.

    Your story is kinda scary, as sometimes these people act vampirically: first this, then that, before you know it, you've lost what you held precious.
    This is why I'm reluctant to reveal details on scents that are long gone. Those which are still produced however, I like to see them stay in production. ;-)
    Anyway, with your highly individualised and niche taste, I'd say the odds of having someone copy you are next to nil :-)

  6. P,

    thanks for sharing! First one sounds like a nuisance and third one sounds like a case of supreme concern! I hope she was just clinging, not like the film eh? :D

    Which reminds me, with FB and all those social media these days, stalking someone should be far too easy for comfort, huh.

  7. I remember writing about this film for a Feminist Theory and Psychoanalysis course. (Naturally.) I made a big deal out of Moi-Meme! Little did I know that years later, I would be more interested in the perfume than the film! Hahaha.

    Thanks for the memories! And whatever happened to Bridget Fonda?!

    (Most perfumes I've grown to love and have worn have been influenced by the women I knew who wore them. Does that make me a creeper?!)

  8. Barbara,

    you're welcome, glad I provided a bit of nostalgia (and some laughs).
    It does provoke an intense look at feminism and how women assert themselves (Hedy is very assertive in a roundabout way, while the outwardly more independent Allie is the one who is dependent on other people, her boyfriend, her roommate to get through the seperation, her gay friend to alleviate her worries, etc). Interesting portrayal of character so I'm not surprises you chose to focus on it. I bet you did a great job! I'd love to have been a fly in your room and read the paper. :-)

  9. Interesting article. Thanks for including the images. :)

  10. JC,

    you're welcome. The images have their own power, don't they?


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