Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eau de Beeb - BBC 4's perfume documentary

This documentary by Ian Denyer, a rare occasion of perfume being featured in the mainstream media in a non-PR function, was eagerly anticipated by the perfumista community. Part 1, "Something Old, Something New" ran on the 28th of June and is available online (see link - if you are not in the UK, a software named Expat Shield may be of service).

So, how was it? Entertaining yes, challenging, no.  Perhaps the dramatizing reality-TV inspired "docu-soap" format is the most one can hope for these days from TV. The style was very much akin to the BBC Savile Row documentary, which juxtaposed traditional Savile Row bespoke tailors with textile giant Abercrombie & Fitch (and omitted some fine detail in the process). Here the old-world de luxe house of Guerlain, stuck in the early 20th century, is compared with hypermarketing US giant Estée Lauder creating a new perfume for the Tommy Hilfiger brand.

It's infotainment rather than a "serious" documentary, which would have dwelt on Guerlain's transformation from independent perfume house to LVMH subsidiary and the consequences for its perfume policy. These things are only gently hinted at in the form of a new Shalimar flanker aimed at "opening the door" to a classic for younger women. Dramatizing the story as a contest between a genteel French perfume culture, embodied by the withering gentleman Jean Paul Guerlain doting about in his chateau, and American big business represented by shallow marketing execs mouthing platitude after platitude is playing on popular clichés, while ignoring the global nature of mass market capitalism as it defines the perfume (and every other big) business everywhere. This is a a distortion I'm not happy about (though well acquainted with) as a scholar of transatlantic perceptions.

That said, chief perfumer Thierry Wasser's attachment to Guerlain (the person and the company tradition) came across as very deep and sincere and his consternation in the wake of Guerlain's racist gaffe was painful to watch (and a golden moment for filmmakers seeking to capture big emotions - blech). It was also interesting to observe the Hilfiger campaign people scrambling about - quite amateurishly - in view of the heap of redundant nothingness that Loud (for him, at least) turned out to be. Why somebody as talented as Aurelien Guichard has to be hired to produce a 100% generic formula, exept for PR purposes perhaps, is beyond me.

The really fun part was Chandler Burr, who was fresh, intelligent and honest. In a less respectful documentary they would have let Burr judge "Loud" in the end to give an idea of how a modern-day marketing machine is basically about noisily selling hot air (or worse).

All in all, part 1 clearly falls short of truly informed and critically informative documentary work, which a multi-billion dollar industry should certainly be worthy of. Still non-perfumistas will have learned one or two new things. I enjoyed the program, but one day I'd like to see a hard-nosed documentary on the perfume business.