Suzanne's Perfume Journal

In the weeks since I stopped blogging, I’ve been watching a lot of things on Netflix, mostly because it’s winter now and I’m craving that kind of comfort, but also in the hopes of becoming inspired on the writing end. Getting me over my writer’s block (at least to the degree that it inspired this post) is the 2007, Ryan Gosling-fronted film, Lars and the Real Girl, which has popped up many times in my “recommended” list generated by Netflix but which I avoided, assuming it was a dopey sex comedy (thanks to previews I had seen in the movie theater years ago, before it came out). Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong: turns out it’s one of those quirky indie films that is more poignant and unique than anything I’ve viewed in ages. If I were to describe it as a highly unusual love story that takes place between an exceedingly lonely and detached young man and a sex doll, you might get the impression that this is a bizarre and tawdry film and wonder what it is that I call love. But if I were to tell you that this doll is the representation of love that is ordinary and everyday, multiplied to a point where the ordinary becomes extraordinary—extraordinary to the point that this doll becomes something far more than the symbol that she most obviously is (and here I’m not only talking about the symbol she is at the start of the film but the symbol she becomes by the end of it)—then hopefully you’ll know that this film is compelling because of the way that it is and is not bizarre: the way in which it quietly lets all the air out of the tires of what could be bizarre and bears this vehicle up under a different kind of vapor.

Like any truly worthwhile story, Lars and the Real Girl requires one to suspend disbelief to no uncertain degree. Yet when a story has a sizable element of the real about it—when it speaks straight-forwardly of things we do know to be true—of loneliness and the lost path and the kind of people we hope will be there for us when we need to find either a road back or the way forward—then suspending disbelief becomes an effortless and natural thing to do. Especially in this film, where there are no bells or whistles, no bits of magical realism to point the way: this is a quiet film in which see only ourselves reflected—albeit ourselves when we are at our best, and at our best collectively—which is really the only hurdle to believability .

I’ve watched Lars and the Real Girl twice now, contemplated it often, and every time I think about it, I feel like spritzing on some Chanel Cuir de Russie (which explains why my decant is almost gone). Cuir de Russie, at least in its most recent formulation (the eau de toilette from Chanel’s “les exclusifs” collection) is a very quiet perfume on me. So much so, I can’t reconcile it with either its name or much of what I’ve read about it; particularly the mini-reviews on Basenotes.net, where it is often described as being stronger, more leathery and more animalic that how it presents itself to my nose. I don’t get much leather from Cuir de Russie, I get a lot of iris, which has a leathery facet to it (as I’ve often mentioned in other perfume reviews) but is decidedly suede-like and subtle here, as well as misty and cool, the latter of which is opposite to how one generally regards leather. To my nose, Cuir de Russie doesn’t have the kind of supporting notes that would fully flesh out the more leathery facet of iris, and what I get instead is a delicate leather accented mostly by the powdery aspects of iris, and a sheer cosmetic sweetness that is best read as “pretty.” This suede-like iris is prominent from the start but arrives under a haze of cool and waxy aldehydes (not listed among the notes), and while there is a lightly indolic jasmine tugging at those aldehydes to keep them from being frosty, the overall effect is of a perfume that is reserved, polite and far more dreamy than it is passionate. If I were going to describe Cuir de Russie in more ordinary terms, listing the first thing that springs to mind, I’d talk about it smelling like a pair of leather gloves from Victorian times: gloves peeled from a gentle lady’s lotion-scented hands and talcum-powdered wrists.


But there is something even more detached and enigmatic about Cuir de Russie, and I find myself thinking about Bianca, the doll who becomes Lars’ companion in the movie. Bianca is not a blow-up doll, she’s a molded, life-size version of a Barbie doll. Or at least that’s the way she starts out: to look at her, one can almost imagine a whiff of the cool, silicone-plastic smell of a new Barbie doll with glossy hair and bendable rubber legs, which is similar to what I smell in the top notes stage of Cuir de Russie. Pretty as she is, even if one tries to stretch one’s mindset about a doll being a companion (of any kind), Bianca, at the beginning of the film, is sort of like a communion wafer: she seems too absurd and bland a host for any kind of experience, let alone an experience of some profundity. Yet in many ways, as the title of the film indicates, Bianca undergoes a transformation through which she becomes the depository for the kind of love that one might describe as miraculous or divine. And while I’m not suggesting that I’m placing Cuir de Russie on this same level—not suggesting that it offers up an experience of similar profundity—I do see an analogy. For much of its wear-time on my skin, I find myself thinking think that, lovely as it is, it’s too contained to really be special; its reserve frustrates me. After Cuir de Russie’s top notes burn off, I have to press my nose to my wrist to smell it. But somehow it goes the distance, and hours after applying, I’ll catch a drift of it as I reach my hand up to tuck my hair behind my ears and realize how elegant it smells. A day later, I’ll put on the scarf or sweater that still bears its traces, and I’ll find myself captivated by its graceful beauty. On me, Cuir de Russie is a skin scent—it melds with my skin rather than standing apart from it—and in the process, it becomes not a relic or article of scent, but a second skin: something more real.

Orange blossom, bergamot, mandarin, sage, iris, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, vetiver, styrax, leather, amber and vanilla are listed as the notes in Cuir de Russie (at Fragrantica.com; there is a slightly different and shorter list at Basenotes.net). Though not listed, the fragrance smells softly of aldehydes on initial application, and, in combination with citrusy-floral opening notes and the immediately present iris, these notes become the scent of suede leather and something a little more synthetic: a whiff of Elmer’s glue or of what I (rightly or wrongly) attribute as smelling like silicone rubber … the new Barbie-doll smell. There is a cosmetic sweetness attendant with this start, but nothing I would call warm or engaging until, some five minutes into its wear, the jasmine starts to emerge.  This jasmine accord is indolic enough to insert a whiff of flesh into the mix, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it heated or overly fleshy, it exerts a pull on the fragrance that makes it an integral element, crucial to the conversion that this perfume undergoes. Combining with the iris, the jasmine coaxes Cuir de Russie into smelling a touch more leathery and suede-like than it otherwise would and, for me, it’s what contributes to the “real” skin smell of the fragrance. The developments in the perfume from this point forward are also very nuanced, yet instill an important sense of lady-like elegance: the iris becomes a touch powdery, as iris often does; the vanillic influence of the soft amber base contributes to its feminine softness; and the drydown has an element of sandalwood creaminess to it, which perhaps is achieved through the marriage of cedarwood and vanilla (including vanillic styrax).

On days when I’m craving a realistic leather scent, Chanel Cuir de Russie is the last fragrance to come to mind. However, on days when I am seeking a different form of verisimilitude—one that is not immediately obvious but the product of a tender act of transformation—this elegant and unassuming perfume provides an astonishing sense of deliverance.

Chanel Cuir de Russie eau de toilette can be purchased from the Chanel boutiques and online at Chanel.com, where a 75 ml/2.5 fl oz bottle is currently priced at $160, while a 200 ml/6.8 oz bottle is $280. My review is based on a decant gifted by a blogging friend (thanks, Undina!)

Credits: film still of Ryan Gosling in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl can be found numerous places online; bottle image of Chanel Cuir de Russie is from the Chanel.com website.

December 14, 2013:

Perfume and a Movie:
Chanel Cuir de Russie and "Lars and the Real Girl"

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