Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cinema Scent: The Graduate (dir. Mike Nichols; 1967)


What's the smell of disillusionment? According to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate - currently enjoying a 50th anniversary, big-screen re-release - it’s cigarette smoke and whisky on ice. The film’s most disillusioned character - the implacable Mrs Robinson, apparently crushed by years of self-directed anger - is almost always surrounded by a tobacco haze or holding a half-empty glass. In fact, in many ways, she is the movie’s most scented feature, which is entirely appropriate, given her placement within the realms of the sensual. She’s also contrasted with her seemingly scent-free daughter, Elaine: well-scrubbed, wholesome and channelling Liz Claiborne aesthetics long before they became popular. But is that a Dior bottle we see on Elaine's dressing table? The camera doesn't let us get a close enough look, although it's tempting to think it might be the weightless Eau Fraîche.

Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock comes with his own set of olfactory markers. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes - neatly encapsulating Nichols’ expert balance of both the comic and the angst-ridden - Ben steps into a swimming pool whilst fully dressed in the scuba gear he's just received as a birthday present. The soundtrack burbles with water. The camera homes in on the teeth-baring faces of the onlookers. The California light takes on a headache-inducing intensity. We are but inches away from being overpowered by the stench of the chlorine in the pool and the neoprene of Ben’s diving suit.

Interestingly, towards the end of the story, Ben becomes even smellier. As he chases after Elaine and has to abandon both his car and his dignity, he is grimier, sweatier and more dishevelled than we have seen him at any other point in the film. It's almost as though he is appropriating dirt in order to ward off the clinical oppressiveness of a future that terrifies him. But will the trick work? While he and Elaine are carried away in what looks like a pungent form of public transport, it's hard not to think that their future will be as fag-and-booze-filled as that of their parents. After all, tobacco and bourbon will always overpower the gentle inflections of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

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