One Thousand Scents

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ne Plus Ultra

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, is just one of my favourite books of all time, for what I suppose must be obvious reasons. When I discovered that a a movie was being made of the book, I was dubious: pretty much the entire thing is rendered in terms of the sense of smell, which is clearly a difficult thing to put on film, John Waters' Polyester notwithstanding. When I learned that Tom Tykwer, the director of the spectacular Run Lola Run, was directing, I had more faith in the enterprise: if anyone can do it, he can.

And then, unfortunately, I learned that Parfums Thierry Mugler was releasing a set of 15 fragrances to go with the movie. The more I read about them, the more desperately I wanted the set. Anyone who knows the book will be able to follow the entire sequence of events (and be able to imagine how each of the perfumes smells) from the names alone: Baby, Paris 1738, Atelier Grimal, Virgin No. 1, Boutique Baldini, Amor et Psyché, Nuit Napolitaine, Ermit, Salon Rouge, Human Existence, Absolu Jasmine, Sea, Noblesse, Orgie, and finally Aura, the ultimate perfume. (Rumour has it that this final scent will eventually be released all on its own.)

Pro: I wanted it. Con: it's insanely expensive ($700 U.S.). But, I figured, I must surely have spent that much on fragrances in the last year, and if I promised to be really really good and not buy anything for the next year, I could justify it. But they're little bottles of perfume, and once they're opened, they have a limited shelf life, a few years perhaps, before they start to turn, and I have so many scents already--I'll never use them up in a normal life span, that's how many. But why shouldn't I have the set? I have few vices--a little overfond of food, but I don't smoke or drink or take any drugs save for ibuprofen and the occasional hit of caffeine, and this one weakness harmed no-one. And the idea of owning this set, which must be some sort of pinnacle of the perfumer's art, was thrilling. But I didn't even know if I'd like many of the scents, and some of them seem clearly meant to be novelties and not actually intended to be worn (Paris 1738 and Human Existence, in particular, threaten to be hideous).

Buy it. Don't buy it. Just do it. You'd be crazy to. I did this for days, tossing the yeses and the noes around in my head, hoping that if I waited long enough, they'd all get bought up--only a hundred are available in North America--and then it would be out of my hands. But they're still available!

And then, finally, the thing happened that made me realize I wasn't going to allow myself to have them and it was for the best. A new fragrance boutique had opened up in a local mall, and they have a lot of stock, things you can't get anywhere else in the region, things I've never seen for sale anywhere else in the country, even. And they had Paco Rabanne's Ultraviolet Man, and I had wanted it ever since I read about it. I'd never even smelled it, but after reading the notes and the descriptions of it, and looking at that marvelous bottle, I knew it was for me. I didn't buy it. But I had to go back to the mall a few days later for lunch with a friend, and so help me, I did buy it.

That was that. I knew that I would never be able to keep myself from buying anything new for an entire year (particularly as I'm going to France, and specifically Grasse, next year).

Everything about Ultraviolet Man is synthetic. The box: a clever gradient from metallic violet to black, suggesting, somewhere in the transition, ultraviolet, the colour we can't see. The bottle: a block of dark-purple glass and a slab of chromed plastic set with a rubberized trigger with which you blast yourself with scent. It's a mechanical object, a typically futuristic Paco Rabanne bottle (just look at the bottle for Calandre, a chunk of clear glass in a rigid metal cage, or the women's version of Ultraviolet, a squishy UFO tucked into a blob of a plastic case).

The smell of it is not natural, either, which is not a criticism; it's miles away from the fresh-oceanic smells so popular nowadays (which are just as synthetic, but hide it better). A surge of sweetened mint and indistinct greenery fills the air at first: it's potent, but not aggressive. The sweetness continues through the middle and base notes, which are mostly ambergris and vanilla, tonka bean and musk. It's not quite sugary, not cloying, but without a doubt it's a very sweet, almost luscious, scent. The ambergris isn't the usual amber, either: it's brightened, amped up--accelerated, if that means anything. It doesn't smell like the usual ambergris scents, but instead frankly and unashamedly like something created in a lab.

This deliberate artificiality has turned off a lot of people, but I like it a lot. Its weirdness bears the stamp of originality: it's constructed.


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