Have you ever imagined the smell of napalm that colonel Kilgore liked so much in “Apocalypse Now”, while seated in a fascinating dark cinema? Most likely, yes. Cinema is exciting and the most emotional perception is definitely the sense of smell. When we read a book, we often give a face to the main characters and a similar mechanism arises with smell. “Parasite”, the most olfactory film ever, won the Oscar showing how social divisions cannot be overcome because of odours. An odour that remains stuck to the protagonists, a stench that viewers virtually smelled and truly looked for it on themselves. Think about the film adaptation of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, how would it have been if Stanley Kubrick hadn’t died before starting the project? (Without detracting anything from the 2006 version directed by talented Tom Tyker). In fact, quoting Grenouille, the obscure heart of the novel, “For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they couldn’t escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath”.
Perfume in a film on big screens is pure suggestion, although many directors tried to make unforgettable movies through smell, with poor results. In the ‘60s a system releasing odors during movie projections was launched under the name of “Odorama”. The complex technology at the base of this project was called “Smell-O-Vision” and it could manage up to 30 odors. The most expensive production was “Scent of mistery”, a thriller where the leading character saved a girl identifying her only by her perfume. The system was conceived to use different kinds of essences like coffee, salt and talcum powder smell. The result was a complete disaster: wrong timing and such disgusting fragrance excesses that made spectators literally ran the other way.
This failure slowed so much down other similar experiments that General Electric stopped the production of a machinery that was supposed to change the history of cinema. In the early 80s another famous movie director, John Waters, (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and Cry Baby with Johnny Depp and Iggy Pop) made a new attempt. For his film “Polyester”, a Milan-based company created some scratch and sniff cards to be used during the projection. Unfortunately, this was another dead end. However such kind of gimmick became popular as a marketing and olfactory communication tool.
Even if this could have been successful, it would have been very hard to satisfy each viewer’s sense of smell. As a matter of fact, one’s mind has a too personal opinion and is unable to accept pre-established schemes for everyone. A book that fascinated and captivated us, it’s not satisfying as its film version because our creative force would have made it better or in any case differently.
In the dizzying tango of “Scent of a woman”, where an amazing Al Pacino dances with Gabrielle Anwar, it’s impossible not to imagine her perfume, looking for it on her neck and between her hair. This is also the real essence of the film, since the protagonist is blind and in the seduction act is only guided by his sense of smell. Still on the subject of dance, another extremely evocative scene is the one of “The Leopard”, shot in Palermo in the reception hall of Valguarnera-Gangi Palace. The building hides in its odours the ability to take the visitor to another time. Giuseppe Tomasi from Lampedusa has filled his novel with olfactory quotes from irrepressible Sicily and the rest comes from the myth Luchino Visconti together with the director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, a waltz, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. It becomes almost impossible not to get carried among fragrances in the sequence that made the history of cinema.
In most recent times, the amazing transposition of “The Great Gatsby” by Baz Luhrman also has an extraordinary olfactory power, from parties to gardens till the smell of burnt rubber of the most tragic moments. By the same film director, wonderful “Moulin Rouge!” is rife with perfume. The luxurious fragrance of Satine (Nicole Kidman) and the one of absinthe and her fairy (Kylie Minogue) are an essential part of the film pathos.
Another master like Quentin Tarantino deserves a mention on the olfactory skills of cinema. The scent at Jimmie Dimmick’s house (interpreted by Tarantino himself) with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson dealing with a corpse that must be hidden and the aroma of coffee “that has nothing to do with the Instant one”. An unforgettable scene just before Mr Wolf breaks in.
“Each time I tell myself it’s the last time, but then I get a whiff of her hot chocolate”. Instead, the smell of chocolate almost becomes a spell in the hands of magic baker Juliette Binoche and nothing can do the victim, Johnny Depp. Same actor and same smell to which it’s impossible to escape: we talking about Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Tim Burton is with Baz Luhrman, who is the best director able to make multisensory movies, even with non-existing senses. In an interview he told that he has imagined and experimented the odour of snow in “Edward Scissor hands” or the smell of the “infernal” eau de cologne in Sweeney Todd’s razors, the diabolic barber of Fleet Street. The common thread of Burtonian suggestions leads to the most successful series of the last decade. How can we not smell the acrid odour coming form the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in which Daenerys jumps into to be born again together with three dragons? The smell of the pyre is immediately replaced with equal force by the fierce body, covered with ash and ready for revenge.
Iconic examples throughout the history reveal how incredibly strong is the bond between smell and cinema. In a dark cinema, view dominates over smell although this sense insinuates itself in the scene since the era of silent movies, like “City Lights”. The sense of hearing may seem an essential entertainment, but only movies in which we can perceive the smell can really become unforgettable.