By Karon Liu
“The air was heavy with the sweet odour of sweating lust and filled with loud cries, grunts and moans from 10,000 human beasts. It was infernal.”
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille looked on and waved his handkerchief, which was doused in the perfume he concocted. He had the entire town of Grasse on their knees, backs and any other position that facilitated the act.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer immortalized the character of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as the ultimate perfumer who bludgeoned 25 young girls to death in order bottle up their sweet aroma.
Though Perfume is a work of fiction, is there one scent out there that can send people into a frenzy of flesh.
The Enchante perfumery at Fairview Mall is a store that most shoppers would walk by without a second glance. But this store, though inconspicuous in between a watch shop and a bikini boutique, has many old secrets behind its pink and red stained glass sign.
In a small space the size of a corner office, hundreds of bottles line the walls. Surprisingly, there isn’t an overwhelming odour of florals, citrus and ethanol upon entering.
There are lavender and orange-scented talcum powders from Israel, chocolate and cotton candy sprays ideal for a kid sister, basil and cucumber soaps from England and a dusty box of perfume inspired by The Phantom of the Opera.
An eastern-European lady who would only call herself Sheena is working behind the counter. She is calling six other stores for a Dunhill aftershave that a customer is desperate to get for her husband. Sheena offers other brands but they won’t do.
Although gifted with a vast knowledge of perfume, she furrows her brows and pouts in confusion when asked if there is a scent out there that can make people writhe with pleasure. Perhaps thinking that she was propositioned before her lunch break, she turns away to make another call about the Dunhill aftershave. The two dozen scents she has sprayed in the past hour and a half dissipate out the French doors.
Wherever this elusive perfume is, it won’t be sitting next to a bottle of J Lo’s Glow.
The thick, sugary scent of Christmastime breathes down the neck and drifts down to the torso and kisses the belly. Cheeks are flushed as the seemingly wholesome scent conjures thoughts of wickedness and acts so immoral that one will have to spend an entire lifetime repenting on both knees. But that doesn’t matter as hands guide the scent further down creating a spicy aroma of bodily fluids and hot buttermilk.
Grenouille would be proud. But while he scoured the highest mountains of France, the bustling markets of Les Halles and even the bedroom of his last victim for the perfect scent, this fragrance is found next to frozen bundles of week-old meats and forgotten fruits picked from last summer — the cinnamon roll.
Neurologist and psychiatrist Alan Hirsch found that a quarter of his patients who lost their sense of smell also suffered from sexual dysfunctions. Suspecting that there is a correlation between the two, he tested whether certain odours can increase arousal.
Hirsch exposed 30 male test subjects to various scents, from the typical orange to more peculiar combinations of lavender and doughnuts, and measured the amount of penile blood flow in the patients in response to the odours. In between tests, the men would smell cinnamon rolls to cleanse their palettes but surprisingly this was the scent that caught their attention the most.
Hirsch also found that the mix of soothing lavender and spicy pumpkin pie increased blood flow to the penis by an average of 40 per cent in the men, while sugary doughnuts and bittersweet black licorice came in second with about 32 per cent. On the other hand, the scent of tart cranberries increased blood flow by a paltry average of two per cent.
Women were also put to the same test as Hirsch measured the amount of vaginal blood flow with a range of scents including mesquite barbeque smoke, bright green parsley and the aroma of baby powder. However, the fruity scent of ripe cherries decreased women’s arousal by an average of 18 per cent while charcoal barbeque smoke lowered stimulation by 14 per cent.
What did stimulate the libido, however, is a combination of cucumber and licorice.
“The exact reasons why some scents are more powerful than others are still unclear,” says Hirsch who is the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “Some scents make men recall their girlfriends and childhood memories. Some scents make them more awake and alert and thus more alert to everything around them.”
While Hirsch recommends that one should use cinnamon rolls instead of perfume as an aphrodisiac, he’s not so sure perfume makers have listened to his results.
“(Perfume companies) have their own approach but maybe their goal is not just to facilitate sexual arousal but to also help with communication and socialization, which may lead to arousal,” says Hirsch.
In the white-walled labs of Paris and New York, the perfumers are quietly measuring the ingredients for their newest scents — replacing tired, understated smells such as calm waters and wallflowers with scrumptious, yet hostile bouquets that refuse to leave the skin after no less than two hours.
“There’s now a gourmand note, an edible feeling like chocolate and crème brulee because it’s stronger and longer-lasting,” says Virginia Bonofiglio, perfumer and professor at the Fashion Insitute of Technology in New York, in reference to Hirsch’s findings. “We’re very comfortable with the smell of foods.”
Having been in the industry for more than 25 years, her cabinet of creations includes Uninhibited for Cher and Anvers for Men. But unlike Grenouille whose list of ingredients for creating the human desire smell range from moldy cheese to bits of cat shit, and of course, two-dozen virgins — give or take a redhead — everything needed in the perfect perfume is located within the lab.
“Right now, the majority are aromatic chemicals and not natural because it’s costly and not environmentally friendly. Also, if you depend on a lot of lavender and on that particular year the crop is bad, then you’re in trouble. Right now, scents can be produced from things like wood pulp and petroleum, it’s all hydrocarbons.”
The days of macerating orange blossoms into secreting their essences have ceased but there still is an appreciation for Grenouille the mad scientist.
Bonofiglio enjoyed the cinematography and joked about the gore in Perfume with her students, but she doubts that anything will have the same effect as Grenouille’s concoctions. She doesn’t believe that human existence could ever be dabbed behind the ears or that there is one scent out there that would make knees tremble and thoughts immoral.
“Fragrance is an art form and like all art, it appeals to different people so there isn’t one scent that everyone would like,” she says. “A good fragrance should make you feel good about who you are and what you are. It should make people want to come into your personal space.”
The final scene of Perfume has Grenouille standing on the outskirts of town, disgusted with the empty emotions his scent created. He drenches himself with what was left of that irresistible fragrance as he tries to conjure something more than animal attraction. As the social misfits close in on this heavenly-fragranced entity, they tear him from limb to limb and devour every last bit.
“When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances and then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.”