Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/United Artists/Allstar
The perfume was specially commissioned by organisers of the annual Bergman Week festival on the island on which the Swedish director was born. But what does it smell like?
The Guardian-Xan Brooks and Tania Sanchez
On Monday morning the postman delivers a parcel from Sweden. Inside is Persona, a perfume inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s most demanding, difficult, abrasive film. It gives us Bergman in a bottle; the arthouse atomised. I spray it on my wrist and then on my wife’s and we stare at each other through a mist of droplets. The perfume is distinctive, but does that mean it’s good?
After a long, anxious moment, my wife nods in relief. “This is actually all right,” she says. “It’s herby. It’s lavender. It smells like the sea.”
Persona, we learn, has been specially commissioned by the organisers of the annual Bergman Week festival on the island of Fårö. They explain that the scent was made from oils and herbs that grow on Fårö and is intended to somehow reflect the film’s spirit. Or as Cristina Jardim Ribeiro, the festival’s operation manager, puts it: “Persona is the ideal perfume. Both [the film and perfume] deal with questions about identity, who we want to be, and the masks we wear to highlight or protect that.” I wonder if this is true: do films about masks and disguises naturally lend themselves to a perfume spinoff? If so, luxury fragrances might one day have names such as Frank, Mrs Doubtfire and The Elephant Man.
We send the kids to bed early and watch Persona, a film Bergman said was better felt and experienced than understood. Shot in 1966, it’s a jagged psychological abstract, full of swirling terrors and mounting tension. Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson play the women in torment, torn between art and obligation, dreams and drudgery; staring into each other’s faces until they start to see themselves looking back. My wife doesn’t like it and we have an interminable, inconclusive argument about whether an art-film is different from a conventional narrative film. Along the way I accuse her of preferring the perfume. She likes the merchandise more than the actual movie itself.
The film is divisive; the fragrance less so. Tuesday afternoon, my mum drops by to see the grandkids. She likes the scent, too. She says that it has pleasant notes. The six-year-old, meanwhile, can barely leave it alone. He demands that I spray the air by his head so that he can jump back and forth through the mist, just as he does with the sprinkler in the park. He reeks of Persona, but is that such a bad thing? It’s herby, it’s lavender. It smells like the sea.
Daytimes, I’m inside the home office, working. This is where I’ve spent the past 18 months, like Jack Torrance festering inside the Overlook hotel, staring at the laptop screen until I can see my own face looking back. The bottle’s beside me; my thumb’s on the nozzle. I keep thinking about Persona, which the Swedish academic Stig Wikander called “a gnomic quest for divine nothingness” and Peter Bradshaw described as “a film to make you shiver with fascination, or incomprehension, or desire”. The room is cold. The air is thick. After a few hours cooped up, I’ve started shivering, too.
My wife opens the door and takes a full step backwards. “You’ve been spraying that stuff in here,” she says.
“So what if I have? It’s herby, it’s lavender. It smells like the sea.”
She wrinkles her nose and reaches for the window. She says, “It always makes me feel a bit sick, perfume.”
The dream olfactory: why smell still escapes Hollywood
By Tania Sanchez, the co-author with Luca Turin of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (Profile Books) and Perfumes: The Guide 2018 (Perfüümista)
Perfume and cinema are a match made in purgatory. For more than a century, attempts to marry an audiovisual art with an olfactory one had no success. No wonder they kept trying. If adding sound to moving pictures resulted in the “talkies” that changed everything, what might the “smellies” give us? Beyond simply seeing the blast and hearing the boom, suppose you inhaled the gunpowder?
But smellies were a dud. Jack Cardiff’s Scent of Mystery (1960), the sole fully smell-tracked feature film, rigged an entire cinema with pipes and fans at great expense. The plot featured the pursuit of a woman known only by her perfume. It was plagued by technical issues and reviewed poorly.
Beyond the plumbing problems, there is a fundamental psychological problem. Sound and light reach us from a distance. As we sit in the dark, our attention fixed on images and noises larger and closer than life, our sense of corporeal being detaches, leaving just enough awareness to reach into our popcorn.
Touch and smell, by contrast, act at close quarters. If someone pokes a finger into you, your mind snaps back from wandering. If a smell wafts into your space, you swivel to seek the source. Smell grounds you in reality. Perhaps that is why it is so rare to dream of smells – and why fragrance in the movies remains a gimmick.
The sole exception to the unhappy marriage of perfume and movies was the extremely limited edition set of 15 perfumes accompanying the 2006 film of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind. The perfumer Christophe Laudamiel based these scents on scenes, characters and ideas from the film. They are complex, grand, thoughtful, skilfully executed and made of good stuff, even humorous – the one labelled “Human Existence” smells of bad teeth and dirty bottoms.
At a remove from the distraction of actors, dialogue and scenery, the perfumes tell their own story: baroque, beautiful and hideous; delicious, scary or antique. If you tried to smell these while watching the picture, you would probably close your eyes. That is the trouble: smell does not get along with the pictures.