Suzanne's Perfume Journal

May 18, 2009

I’ll warn you right up front that this post is more or less a film review, with a little perfume thrown in at the end. So if you want to click away, or just skip to the bottom of the post, go ahead. It won’t hurt my feelings. There’s no rhyme or reason for me writing this and posting it here, other than to say that, for better or worse, this is how my thought process works…this is how my perfume obsession crosses over into other areas of my life. I can’t read a book, watch a movie, or eat a meal without perfume figuring into it in some way. In my head, I am always scenting fictional characters, pairing perfumes to menus, matching fragrances to special, and even mundane, occasions. On the page, I suppose I am more interested in exploring a scented life than in focusing on the scents themselves. More and more, I realize that this is what my perfume journal has become: a venue for documenting my life and my interests through fragrance.

Anyway, thanks to Netflix, I’ve recently become enamored with the charming little film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, adapted from Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel of the same name. Frances McDormand plays the role of Guinevere Pettigrew, an unemployed London governess, very much down-at-the-heels, who in a case of mistaken identity lucks into a position as a social secretary to luscious American starlet, Delysia Lafosse (played by Amy Adams). It’s not a long appointment—only 24 hours, to be exact—but long enough to change the fortunes and outlooks of both women.

When we first meet her, Miss Pettigrew has just been sacked from the last of what appears to be a series of unsuccessful nannying jobs, in which she has demonstrated a habit of granting latitude to her young charges while adopting a rather restrictive view of their parents. (“Mrs. Brummegen was, well, fond of the sherry, if you take my meaning. As a vicar’s daughter I found her rather difficult,” Miss Pettigrew explains to the head of her employment agency, Miss Holt, who responds in kind: “She found you rather difficult, Miss Pettigrew, and that is, I’m afraid, a recurring theme….Our clients don’t adapt to suit your needs, Miss Pettigrew. You adapt to them.”)

Before being shown the door at the employment agency, Miss Pettigrew overhears a telephone conversation that leads her to steal the calling card of Delysia Lafosse from Miss Holt’s desk. Thinking that the Lafosse household is in need of a nanny, she hurries there to snag the job before the agency can send someone. Her misunderstanding soon comes to light, however, when she is greeted at the door of the flat by the delicious, if somewhat ditzy, Delysia, who has just spent the night entertaining a gentleman caller and now needs help getting him out of bed before her other boyfriend—the owner of the flat—arrives home. After Miss Pettigrew succeeds at dispatching the young man and covering up any evidence that he had been there, Delysia believes she has found just the woman to keep her affairs in order.

Miss Pettigrew, on the other hand, is not so sure. “A little desperation has made me a smoking, swearing accomplice to misdeeds in a den of iniquity!” she laments. But realizing that a fortuitous opportunity is within her grasp, and perhaps reckoning that the role of social secretary to a society doll is not unlike being the governess of a wayward child, she decides to plunge in and fully embrace the day that is about to unfold before her. She is soon pulled into the cheeky young woman’s orbit, but without losing her own moral compass. For perhaps the first time in her life, Miss Pettigrew manages to stay true to herself while adapting an attitude that allows her to go with the flow rather than against it. In doing so, a marvelous chemistry develops between the two women, both of whom undergo a transformation of sorts. By the end of the film, Miss Pettigrew’s life will expand and Delysia’s life will contract a bit, and both women will benefit for it.

With its old-fashioned sense of comedy, as well as its Cinderella storyline, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a sweet and beautifully filmed piece of whimsy, with enough substance to keep it from dissolving into mere froth. It’s the kind of film that should appeal to perfume lovers who have a fondness for vintage froufrou (and I know that many perfume lovers do!) because its period costumes and furnishings are to die for. Delysia might only be a starlet, rather than a star, but everything about her life is over-the-top glamorous. Hers is a world of fashion shows and nightclubs (the boyfriend who owns the flat also owns the Scarlet Peacock, where she is the featured jazz singer). Delysia sips champagne in the bathtub, throws catered parties, and entertains in a boudoir that has clearly been decorated for her, with walls covered in hand-painted chinoiserie. It’s only natural to wonder what glorious perfume Delysia would spray with reckless abandon over her nubile body and among the folds of her expensive lingerie.

Guerlain Vega, originally launched in 1936 and named for the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, immediately springs to mind. I’ve not smelled the original, yet I was fortunate to receive a generous sample (from a beautiful perfume goddess, no less!) of Vega in its latest incarnation. Guerlain reissued the fragrance in 2006, making it exclusive to their flagship store in Paris, at first, and then to a select few of their other boutiques. Often compared with Chanel No. 5, Vega is an aldehydic floriental scent with a powdery floral heart, a tickle of leathery/animalic nuances, and a creamy sandalwood base. I would characterize it as being a little less aldehydic than Chanel No. 5 and a lot warmer. On my skin, Vega behaves more like a meteor than a star: it has a very quick trajectory from top to drydown. There is the initial pop of bright aldehydes, a swoosh of florals that are hard to separate and name (though rose and iris are most detectable), and a quick descent into light powder and wood. I think it might be the iris note in Vega that lends a bit of a leathery feel to the scent during the first fifteen minutes of wear. It’s difficult to find a list of fragrance notes for Vega, but from what I’ve gathered here and there on the blogosphere, they include ylang-ylang, orange blossom, jasmine, rose, aldehyde, iris, vanilla, sandalwood, and rosewood.

The more I think about it, Chanel No. 5 is the scent that actually reminds me of a star (in both the astronomical and theatrical sense of the word): it seems more imperious, more aloof and unmoving than Vega. I suppose that’s why Vega also seems a better choice for Delysia Lafosse’s character: it has that same champagne burst of 1930s glamour, but it possesses a softer “star” quality—the kind that touches down to earth and is, to my mind, more delightfully accommodating and engaging.

Images: (top) actors Amy Adams and Frances McDormand, playing Delysia Lafosse and Guinevere Pettigrew, in the 2008 film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; (bottom) Amy Adams as Delysia.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Guerlain Vega