From far off I am being approached. All around hangs a slumber on these halls as things yet unfathomed still occur. This fairytale will tell you last.
In 1995, the identical twin filmmakers known as the Brothers Quay released their first feature-length creation, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. Based on a novella by Swiss author Robert Walser, Institute Benjamenta chronicles the slow disintegration of a 19th century German school for servants. The first fractures appear when Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) arrives to enroll as a student-- but in truth, the Institute's fault lines run as long and deep as history itself.
The school's principal, Johannes Benjamenta (Gottfried John), is a foul-tempered bully fond of boasting about the graduates he has "hammered into Europe". By contrast, his gentle sister Lisa (la divina Alice Krige) is worshipped by the half-dozen students whom she calls her "young saplings", even though they all appear rather long in the tooth. They, like the Benjamentas, never set foot outside the Institute. We soon see why.
"There is but one lesson here, endlessly repeated over and over again," observes Jakob. "One will learn very little here, and none of us will amount to much... but perhaps there is some hidden meaning to all these nothings." I'll say. From attic to basement, the Institute itself seethes with magic untouched by the flow of ordinary time. Some rooms shimmer with nocturnal light from no discernible source; others open unaccountably into ancient glades alive with cicada song. Signs direct students "To the Deer Forests" but neglect to explain how such places could exist within a city building. Nobody bothers to ask, either-- silenced by another placard declaring, "Vorschriften Denken an Alles" (the rules have already thought of everything).
Even more remarkable than this school motto is the painting that hangs above it-- an anthropomorphic stag dressed in hunter's tweeds, carrying a rifle and leading several dogs on a leash. In fact, deer imagery abounds throughout the Institute. Antlers bristle from every mantlepiece. Primitive herd animals ramble across plaster walls like totem spirits from a misplaced cave fresco. Herr Benjamenta's walking stick ends with a stylized hoof, but his sister goes one step further-- her classroom pointer is crafted from an actual chevrotain's foreleg, delicate and dagger-sharp. (In a rare moment of transport, she actually cuts her tender palm on its cloven point.) In the foyer, a display case invites visitors to sniff a snow-white substance through two helpful nozzles; a sign identifies its contents as "Powdered Ejaculate of a Stag At the Time of Rutting Season".
What kind of crazy vocational school IS this?
I know that many before me have smelled L'Heure Fougueuse (the Ardent -- or Reckless -- Hour) and been transported to clover-rich meadows, fields of sweet hay, corrals full of horses all glossy in the sun, their necks and flanks radiant with good fresh sweat. Believe me, I'm not trying to be perverse; I would like very much to go to these places you describe. Certainly they'd be more wholesome than where I've ended up. But one cannot help one's own unique bent, I suppose-- what leads some outward, leads others inward. Me, I spray on L'Heure Fouguese and suddenly I'm standing in the foyer of the Institute Benjamenta, confronting head-on that vitrine full of crystallized stag scent.
Bitte schnüffeln, the sign reads. Please sniff. So I do.
Everything that perfumer Mathilde Laurent promised is here: the pastoral hay-and-loam note of yerba mate; a brisk black tea note fully worthy of the "four o'clock" appellation; a warmly animalic "horse's mane accord" boosted by musk and vetiver; the bright cleanliness of a classic chypre tempered with hints of leather, sweat, and pollen; a touch of coumarin as familiar and private as one's own skin. But then there is something -- Ingredient X, if you like -- a down-dirty pheromonal funk not quite identifiable by origin, but fully recognizable for its aphrodisiac effects. This accord manages to sustain an interminable high pitch of tension, like an imminent sneeze, orgasm, or nervous screaming fit that never quite commences, or a storm that threatens all day to break but never manages to get underway. You wait for it, bet on it, BANK on it-- biting your lip and wringing your hands all the while, praying for release. Will you ever get it?
In the same manner that Serge Lutens' Daim Blond evoked for me all the kinks and twists of one very particular psyche (that of Elisabeth of Bavaria, AKA the notorious Empress "Sisi"), L'Heure Fougueuse summons Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta in her entirety-- outer stillness, inner storm. The lone doe under the perpetual surveillance of an all-male herd, dominated utterly by her King Stag of a brother, she holds herself rigid both in posture and emotion, saying and betraying little. But that is only during the day. By night, she implores a blindfolded Jakob to find her by following her body's warmth and scent-- then, sweating and weeping, sews steel thimbles along the backbones of her dresses in penitence. She is the restless ghost that haunts the Institute, as well as the noctilucent glow that illuminates it.*
This quality of light is important to both L'Heure Fougueuse and the Brothers Quay. If you have ever lifted your face to witness an errant sunbeam breaking through the gaps in a thundercloud, you know what I mean-- that fitful corona, wild and bright against a sullen blue-black matrix. Such light pervades the Brothers Quay's entire body of work and can be considered a hallmark of their vision, much as a certain olfactory accord may prove thematic to a perfumer's lifelong career. I wonder what it means to Mathilde Laurent. I may have disdained Guet Apens (AKA Attrape-Coeur) and only merely liked Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune, but L'Heure Fougueuse has stunned my nay-saying tongue into silence. I am listening now, and listening hard.
So: will relief ever be found? With this exquisite torment, would I ever want it to be? Ever since I received this generous decant of L'Heure Fougueuse from Suzanne, I find that I have reached for it most on days like today-- when storm clouds tower and the air is electric with uncertainty. Like Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta, I pace the maze-like corridors and rooms of this fragrance ceaselessly, finding riddles -- if not answers -- as I go.
*For a unique olfactory viewpoint on this quality of light, read this exceptional article by Lisa U. Marks, currently Dena Wosk University Professor of Art and Culture Studies at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.
Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavender, yerba mate, vetiver, magnolia, "horse's mane accord", oakmoss, coumarin, musk