Nobody knows for sure what makes our noses work the way they do, not even the USD $20-billion-a-year perfume industry's legions of chemists, whose jobs depend on appealing to those noses. Scent is such a delicate sense, and sensorial memories powerful – be they good or bad.
In tonight’s beautifully crafted documentary THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS (in French, ‘Le Nez’ AKA ‘the nose’), acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen makes his debut in the documentary genre with an exploration of the importance of our sense of smell. It is a sense so crucial that those that lose it have been known to fall into deep depression and even suicide, and Nguyen honours it accordingly. The key role that olfaction plays in our everyday life is carefully analysed by sommeliers, perfume creators, truffle hunters and other people whose lives and careers are intimately linked to the nose.
I love that the film gives us what has been called an almost “kaleidoscopic portrait” of what is the sense of smell, exploring the most rare of saffrons, exotic perfumes and more. It is incredible to watch the like of astronaut Chris Hadfield attempt to describe the smell of space, while food molecule expert François Chartier talks about the “sound” of flavours. I was particularly amused by the enigmatic German Guido Lenssen, a truly metaphysical perfumer who claims to have created the scent of a woman of a woman’s crotch (“Vulva”, I kid you not), as he explains how his perfume came to be.
Nguyen travels the world in the documentary, and has said that making a foray into non-fiction was a real challenge for him. The director is most famous for the film REBELLE (AKA ‘War Witch’), a Berlin Film Festival-winning French war drama that tells the story of Komona, a girl kidnapped at the age of 12 by rebel soldiers and enslaved to a life of guerrilla warfare in the African jungle. Forced to commit unspeakable acts of brutality, she finds hope for survival in protective, ghost-like visions (inspiring a rebel chief to anoint her 'War Witch'), and in a tender relationship with a fellow soldier named Magician. It is the most emotive watch and beautifully crafted, and I highly recommend you search it out.
THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS is a very different beast but also a beautiful one. There was the challenge of making a series of talking heads interesting, but the subject matter does that all on its own I think. They are all trying to explain something that is at once ineffable and invisible, and the director has said that at times that led to a moment of panic. “Very early on … I started feeling insecure,” Nguyen told a local Canadian newspaper. “I was scared we wouldn’t be able to produce an hour and a half of screen time and still entertain people”. He went on to contact Joe Bini, an editor for the legendary Werner Herzog to ask for help. He read the script and reportedly said, “I think you should be worried. Smell is not a character you can relate to”… cheers!
Everything changed for the director however when he found writer Molly Birnbaum, a New York-based writer whose struggle to deal with losing her sense of smell is heartbreaking. “She has this great charisma,” he said. “There’s something magnetic about how she looks on screen. It was a turning point. I felt relieved, knowing (the film) could have a structure.”
Another unifying element to the story is the nothing-but-strange substance known as ambergris, a dark, solid matter produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales. The catch? It has an oddly enchanting, often polarising odour that captures the imagination of Nguyen’s interviewees. Basically whale crap, it is a rare and expensive substance that gives perfumes their seductive animalistic odour.
In conclusion, a totally fascinating doco, especially if you love scent as much as I do.
THE EMPIRE OF THE SCENTS premieres Thursday 6 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
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