I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Touching Skin in the Dark:‘Perfect Sense’ directed by David Mckenzie Part II

Perfect Sense is filmed on location in Glasgow. The city is elegantly utilised, alternatively desolate and vibrant. It was used as a location for one of my favourite films, Death Watch (1980) by Bertrand Tavernier, starring Harvey Keitel about a man who has a camera implanted in his head so he can record the last days of a dying woman played by a luminous Romy Schneider. Sadly, it was Schneider’s last film and torn apart for American release. The European version is excellent (if you van get hold of it), dark, brooding and amazingly prescient about the ghastly scramble for the horrors of reality television. I saw it years ago and Glasgow glowered off the screen. It came back to me very vividly while watching Perfect Sense, the streets and shadows, the architecture and very particular Scottish light. The city is very much a character, the Clyde, the Necropolis, the bustling wide streets, the banter. Having worked and partied in Glasgow, it was interesting to see the city’s unique blend of industrial and architectural splendour serve a domestic and pandemic backdrop.

As Michael and Susan’s love grows deeper and darker, the emotions become more exposed and raw. They realise the endgame is coming and need to face themselves and love as much as they can. The film raises an age-old adage of what to do or say as time runs out. A scene where they photograph themselves with redundant Polaroid film stock and watch the image develop is very moving.

Their intimacy, kissing, sex and togetherness are very emotive, driven partly by an awareness of time fading. As with all of McKenzie’s films, sex and nudity is natural and urgently sensual. Both Green and McGregor flash great skin, comfortable in themselves and each other. It seems real somehow, fitted together.

Eva Green is a beautiful woman, at her best in this kind of role it seems, a damaged control freak, afraid to let go, longing for love but terribly afraid of the consequences. She is a strange actress, at once incandescent and angry, then tear-swept and terribly moving. Her chemistry with McGregor is palpable and their movement toward something meaningful in the face of multi sensory failure and darkness holds you tight throughout the film.  

Michael slowly unravels as his love for Susan blooms and the virus robs him of his senses. McGregor is sometimes accused of being a somewhat shallow actor, surface and little depth. But in Perfect Sense, his movement into the light of love and connection to Susan are committed and emotive. Their scenes together have urgency and a naturalness that makes the oncoming darkness so painful to contemplate.

Perfect Sense depicts a world where we are brutally stripped of the things that define us: emotion, memory, smell, sound, and vision. We are asked to re-negotiate our connections to our loves, environment and ourselves. This was never going to be easy. Many fail; there is rage and violence, tragedy and loss. But also humanity and luminosity amid the chaos and pain. The scene where the characters are overcome with insatiable hunger and devour anything around them is hard to watch. Susan crams roses in her mouth in a deserted car park while the woman she clings to desperately chews on a lipstick from her bag. The hunger subsides. Calm is restored, but the unsettling nature of the scene means we are aware that the virus can burn like fire, consuming without pity.

Virus as metaphor is nothing new. The consumer endgame. The modern fatigue of living, our inability to connect, lost in ourselves, manifest in paranoid disease. Perfect Sense is stylised suffering, an exploration of our tenuous connection to our world and how we really feel, if indeed we really feel anything at all.    

I was immensely moved by the film’s exploration of loss; the disappearance of scent and the subsequent spiraling away of associated memories. Never again would the complexities of the brain’s limbic system be triggered by yeast or a split vanilla pod, a snuffed candle or the eerie sweet scent of concrete after summer rain. All of that would be gone forever. This is an unbearable thought. These are huge themes and sometimes the film staggers a little under the weight of them. Some reviews have sniped at the low budget aspect of the film, but so many films have been killed by hubris, sunk by the dazzle of overwrought CGI. The virus and its devastation are realised in subtle detail. It is a human tragedy, not a special effects one. It is also a human drama. We have all the emotion we need to witness in the love and lives of Michael and Susan. The recent nervy coverage of bird flu, foot & mouth and SARS outbreaks has shown us all too easily how the world reacts to potential pandemics.

The final semi-apocalyptic scenes of the film mirror the terrible conflicts within the lives of our protagonists. More senses fade. Communications collapse. The last terrible stages of the virus are rendered beautifully as the world rages against the dying of the light. Michael and Susan stumble their way toward one other in the film’s moving final scenes. I hardly dared breathe. And then I sat and wept.       

Perfect Sense is a remarkable film. It was virtually unnoticed on release. David McKenzie also directed Young Adam and Hallam Foe, two other unique and challenging films. Hallam Foe is still Jamie Bell’s best performance and Young Adam reminded everyone just how extraordinary Tilda Swinton was and revived interest in Scottish beat writer Alexander Trocchi. McKenzie has an eye for abstraction, oddness and offbeat sensuality. There is great emotion too; the twisted loneliness of Jamie Bell in Hallam Foe and the incredible pent up sexuality and bitter frustration of Swinton in Young Adam.    
I must mention the score. A haunting marriage of strings and heart by Max Richter. Mournful and romantic, it travels through the film, wrapping itself in and out of the character’s lives. It has insistence and subtlety, a gentle sobbing harmony and wide emotive spaces. I listen to it a lot and as soon as it starts I see the film rise up around me, vibrant and alive.

Watch this film. It will move you. As someone who spends a lot of time smelling things and obsessing about scent and the importance of memory; studying olfactory connotations past, present and future, Perfect Sense really affected me, got under my skin, made me ponder and analyse my connections to myself and my scented anchors. I looked at what I loved and wondered…is this enough?

The concept of the SOS virus is terrifying, ruthlessly wiping out what we are, wiping our senses, obfuscating our memories, leaving us behind as something else. Something empty.  

In the end, we must touch skin in the darkness and learn to love differently or not love at all. 

Saturday 17 March 2012

Touching Skin in the Dark: ‘Perfect Sense’ directed by David Mckenzie Part I

Without warning you are inconsolable, grief rips you apart, you are overwhelmed by what might have been, ghosts of past lovers, shadows and memories of the departed. You are poleaxed. Bus drivers come to a stop and sob at the wheel. People howl at the sky. A traffic warden falls to her knees and weeps uncontrollably in a bright sunny street.

Your world of recollection is under assault. Memories are fragmenting. Then without any warning, your sense of smell vanishes. Suddenly you are asnomic. The one sense linked directly to memory, the slideshow and album of who you are, the elusive movie flickering with faces, places, sounds and scents. Gone.

This is the disturbing scenario played out in David McKenzie’s poignantly crafted film ‘Perfect Sense’, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green tentatively trying to love as the world falls away from them. It is described as sci-fi/thriller. It is really neither. There are elements of both, but it is essentially a love story, of complex and painful love, born against the odds, a race against oncoming darkness. It is also an atmospheric exploration of our relationship with our senses and how they connect to us to each other and the world around us. 

The sci-fi references refer to the unknown virus that suddenly appears across the globe causing the initial symptoms of grief and asnomia. It doesn’t kill, but infiltrates the world, causing crashing waves of sadness, followed by the loss of smell. With it goes memory. There are periods of adjustment as people seem to adapt and move on, waiting to see what will happen next. The virus moves like SARS or bird flu, quietly, calmly. It is an epidemic, unpredictable, but with momentum and insidious intent.  

First, overwhelming grief and then no sense of smell. That’s the disease. They call it Severe Olfactory Syndrome. SOS.

A strange and hypnotic voice over by Kathy Engels narrates the breakdown of world order and associated progression of the virus and its mutations. These global glimpses flicker throughout the film, in clips of film and stills. They are shot beautifully with verve and immediacy. Cut with footage of real war, pandemic coverage and riots, the images lend urgency and despair to the central claustrophobic love story.

Ewan McGregor is cast In Perfect Sense as a lad about town chef, busy, stylish and oddly empty. He is aging well. Chunkier, more sensual. I like him as an actor, I know many don’t. He has a presence and charm on screen and takes risks many actors are not prepared to take. He can be intensely sexual, loving, moving and amusing. He can also be flat, dull and just god-awful. (The Island anyone?). But his work in Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes, The Pillow Book for Peter Greenaway, Young Adam, also by David McKenzie, the more recent and utterly charming Beginners and his fabulously fey southern turn in I love You Phillip Morris have showcased his charm and versatility.

In Perfect Sense he is Michael, charismatic, grinning and full of the banter. Never falling in love, loving sex, loving the ladies, but unable to commit, unable to even sleep in his own bed if there is someone in it with him. He likes to keep his distance. The TV chef style vacancy suits his character; he loves his work, surrounded by a white suited posse of chefs, sous-chefs and underlings. A nice touch is the restaurant owner played by his real-life uncle Denis Lawson.

Eva Green is Susan, an epidemiologist, working at one of the city’s main hospitals. Her apartment overlooks the back of Michael’s restaurant and so fate starts to meddle. She and her colleagues desperately struggle to understand the nature and intent of the virus. I must admit I am not the greatest fan of Eva Green; she can be a cold performer, whose strange predatory beauty is rarely served well on screen. For many she will always be Vesper Lynd. She was truly beautiful and original in the role and made you understand why Bond might mourn and kill forever.

Her French/Swedish mélange gives her a hooded sensuality that calls to mind the dangerous and unsettling magnetism of Charlotte Rampling. But whereas Rampling has always been open to exploring the darkness within, Eva Green has for me been a little disappointing in her career arc to date, relying on a lot of nudity and rather blunt performances. Her role in Sparks, directed by Jordan Scott last year was excellent however, playing an enigmatic teacher causing sensual mayhem at an all girls school. A kind of debauched Miss Brodie. Her oddness and detachment serve her well in Perfect Sense. She haunts the film. Unable to have children and filled with memories of a father she adored, she is emotionally adrift and buried in her research.

Susan and Michael’s tentative courtship and deepening love plays out against the viral backdrop of the sensory epidemic as the worlds slips slowly into degrees of panic and recovery. There is no closure, no predictability, and no patterns. Just a disturbing certainty that one by one the senses will erode and vanish.    

It is a simple yet shattering premise. A global sensory loss. Watching it unfold through the lens of Susan and Michael’s relationship is very moving, as they stumble into their love, ignite it and fight to keep it burning as all the normal markers of everyday life and living are stripped away.

The virus rolls across the world like water. Susan and Michael are weighed down by memory. Her father, his guilty visits to his mother’s grave. Their strained and fevered sexual encounters. As is usual with these films, a lot of time is spent convincing you that beautiful people are essentially unhappy. It does not quite pull that off, but Eva Green does melancholy rather beautifully with her baleful eyes and flattened out delivery of lines. There are moments however when she smiles; it feels like sun burning through rain.

McGregor stumbles a little with the big emotions from time to time; they play out a little too obviously across his face and delivered with the eager shine of drama school role-playing. But he grows into his persona and as his feelings really take hold and he realises what he might lose and what it left to hold onto, he becomes quiet hypnotic to watch, digging into something primal to express his last chance at loving someone.

The virus defines them. They are witnesses to each other’s debilitating grief. She weeps for the memory of her father who called everyone sailor. He cries next to her in the dark of the bed. In the morning, they calmly realise their sense of smell has vanished and their world has shifted forever. It is startling to watch and reminds us how connected to the sense of smell we are. With its loss goes a myriad connections to the past.    

The greater loss are the memories that are no longer triggered. Smell and memory are connected in the brain. Cinnamon might’ve reminded you of your grandmother’s apron. The scent of cut hair could evoke a childhood fear of cows. Diesel oil might bring back memories of your first ferry crossing. Without smell, an ocean of past images disappears.

The world rages. More senses fail. Cities weep, riot and slowly crumble. All this is seen in a series of reportage flashes intercut with glimpses of Michael and Susan struggling to work and love as the parameters of routine are eaten away. There are attempts at normality, re-adjustment. Smell becomes texture and sound. There is a wonderful scene where a street performer engages a group of people including Michael and Susan with music and touch; she uses a leaf drawn across a cheek, pungent words, a bow quivering on strings to evoke the smells of the forest where the leaf might have once hung.

Things become ultra sweet, ultra sharp. The sounds of the restaurant are thrown more sharply into focus, the sound of place settings, wine in the glass, a knife on a plate, conversation. McKenzie and his cinematographer Gilles Nuttgen use some luminous images, a multitude of simple yet complex concepts. Fluttering trash, masked cyclists, sunlit pipe bands, a love of shadowed rooms, religious fanatics, doomsayer’s tears and feverish skin.


Sunday 4 March 2012

Pageant Crack: ‘Princess Night’ by Vera Wang

We have all glimpsed the surreal and saccharine images of toddlers spinning and glittering on gaudy little catwalks. It exerts a weird and sugary if unhealthy fascination, the competitive moms, the terrifying razzmatazz and the channeling of frustrated dreams. But there is a terrible pathos too; echoes of lost prom nights, endless evenings spent gazing at TV movies, dreaming of stardom. All of this focused ruthlessly into preening and disturbingly garbed tots knocking back go-go juice before parading for trophy after trophy cheered on by air-punching moms. So it felt incredibly weird when I smelt the new Vera Wang Princess Night, all I could think of was so-called pageant crack…the now infamous go-go juice…sugar and dizzying sweetness and an unsettling poisoned darkness; this closed little world of suspended sequined belief and frustrated dreams. Scent rocks the mind in some strange and surreal ways.  

Princess Night is pitched a few notches above the other Princess offerings. They have all been tooth aching sweet and somewhat disposable. But, my defenses are down; I’m a little out of love with niche just now, bored with high concept and art-house fragranced pretention. I go through phases like this. I just want something to drown in. Britney’s Circus Fantasy was an awesome find, glow in the dark raspberry and porny lip-gloss lip locking. The spray and go equivalent of the richly saturated imagery of Mert & Marcus, dripping models and poreless skins. Dolce & Gabbana’s Roue de la Fortune was another guilty pleasure, a little more Miles Aldridge, all pina colada rush and plastic jasmine, glossed up flesh lit against stained and dripping walls. Trash is about subversion and transgression. Pushing the unexpected. Hardly anyone I know expects me to rock up in Princess Night, hence the fun and sexiness in wearing it.   

I loved all the controversy about the so-called pageant crack or go-go juice, supposedly poured down the little things before they went on. A mix of Red Bull and Mountain Dew, a popular fizzy drink, it buzzed them and then caused massive tantrum crashes. I watched the scary tinseled Honey Boo Boo swigging back on a bottle and then strutting her sequined pinkified stuff. Car crash TV at its best.

Princess Night has heady gulping qualities, swigging addictive top notes, ubiquitous wild berries, raspberries and a strange watermelon note that for a moment smells startlingly real then shatters into sherbet and cream. It is a little grimy and smudged as it settles. The kisses more serious, less tweenie, more emotional, more intense. With just a hint of angst.

The ingredients are a roll call of the usual suspects of the neon gourmand: sugar, vanilla and fruits. But the arrangement and management of the notes, the glitter of raspberry, the drip of watermelon is rather impressive. The descent into spiked prom night punch notes of spiced orange and corsage jasmine and rose is weirdly smooth and controlled. There is a tired tantrum kick out to the drydown, a faint slamming door, and a teenage pout of a fade that I couldn’t help but like.

I’m kinda niched out just now and Princess Night caught me. It’s like my weakness for Christina Aguilera ballads; I know they should not make me emotional, but hey they do.

So I bathed in Princess Night’s My Little Pony glow for a while. It was like being a teen again, being incredibly angry and shouty, no-one listening or understanding a chest full of pain. Yet feeling deeply sad and childlike at the same time. Curling up on your bed with a light on, imagining it was a fire on a beach and a boy was whispering your name in the flickering glow.

It’s quite addictive without really knowing why. A passing infatuation. The pale and lovely boy on a bike you see one morning as you hurry to work, the shy girl looking up from her coffee and a second-hand copy of The Great Gatsby. I was hooked to my own skin for hours. Was it too girly, was it even appropriate? It had at its heart that lovely cereal warmth I adore in my beloved Lann Ael by Lostmarc’h.

The gaudy glitter rolled heart shaped bottle is a little cheap and like Honey Boo Boo’s eye-watering ensembles, probably best viewed with half-closed eyes. The so-called pageant crack of Red Bull and Mountain Dew fires up the little tots to spin and sparkle till they crash and burn amid a hyper real universe of competitive surrealism. So the bottle is probably just right.       

There is a time and place for all things. We all have guilty crushes. Films we know are rubbish but laugh and cry at anyway. Disposable pop is its own shimmering art, perfect for forgetful nights as you wander home after stressful workdays. There are days when high art, conceptualism, art-house cinema, laborious lit etc. just irritates and bores me. I’ve been watching London Fashion Week recently and been sooooooo bored by the so-called clothes walking up and down the runways. A lot of print and virtual space has been taken up with discussing London’s return to form, the dynamism, the edginess, and the forwardness. I disagree. It was dull, repetitive, gaudy and actually rather ugly. Swinging between the starry bourgeois acceptance of Burberry Prorsum and Mulberry to the frankly hideous ramblings of Meadham Kirchoff and dull cocktail revisitations of Stella McCartney.

I get so tired of archness. It permeates all levels of consumerism these days. Perfumery is no exception. More and more Houses are toying with abstraction and over-elaborate thematics. The true nature of fragrance, the emotion, the style, the connection to ourselves, our past and our collective memories is being overshadowed in a desire to persuade us that we can wear scent like art, we are potential galleries and can become ‘display’ and ‘interaction’.

Therefore, the relief of liberally applying neon-tastic scent and feeling sensually sinful is rather joyful. The fact that it smells fucking great is of course a bonus. Princess Night has all the exhilarating rush of pageant crack, a fabulous ride of scintillating fairground sweetness, a nighttime ride on the waltzer trying to shout love to someone next to you. Drowning in fruits, vanilla and sugar and holding on tight as the spinning night kicks in.

Now, where are my sequins……?     

For more info on the Vera Wang Princess line, click below: