After the epic success of La Petite Robe Noire, Guerlain – still predominantly a French brand – is aiming to make a bigger splash in the international market with a new, spectacular ad film for Shalimar, shot in Jaipur, Udaipur and Agra by the acclaimed ad film director Bruno Aveillan (who also authored the wonderful Odyssée de Cartier).
For the first time in the perfume’s ad campaigns, La Légende de Shalimar puts forward the story that inspired it: the loves of a 17th century Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, and of his favorite wife, the Persian Mumtaz Mahal. According to brand history, the story was told to Jacques and Raymond Guerlain by a maharajah they met in Paris.
Natalia Vodianova, the brand ambassadress since 2008, was a natural choice for the role of Mumtaz Mahal; Shah Jahan is embodied by the model Willy Cartier, who owes his striking beauty to his French, Vietnamese and Senegalese heritage. Not quite ethnically-correct casting choices, but then the film inhabits the realm of fantasy, with Lord of the Rings vistas and a romance between a milky-skinned, scantily-clad blond beauty and a sloe-eye warrior-king in guyliner that will certainly ring a bell for Game of Thrones aficionados…
…while art history buffs will recognize a reference to Arnold Bocklin’s well-known Island of the Dead (produced in four versions between 1880 and 1886).
When the perfume historian Élisabeth de Feydeau and I went to speak with the director during the press presentation of the film, Bruno Aveillan, an art school graduate, readily admitted to the source: it is one of his favorite paintings. This confirmed what Élisabeth and I had just been discussing. The Taj Mahal, which rises from Badi lake in the film, is actually a mausoleum: an extravagant tribute to love raised after the death of the beloved. We agreed several motifs alluded to death in the film: the gravity of the lovers, their farewell gaze to each other, the fact that Shah Jahan lets Mumtaz Mahal drift off alone on her flat barge – in many myths and religions, death is represented as the crossing of a body of water. Even the muted, pearly tones of the film – as opposed to the vibrant colors usually shown when shooting in India – hint at a looming netherworld.
Aveillan confirmed that he’d thought this through when scripting the film, though of course he hadn’t intended the motif to be too obvious – after all, death is not a huge selling point for fragrance, though it is part of the subconscious heritage of fragrance. One of most ancient uses of perfume was in embalming. And perfume is something that lingers after its wearer has gone. It is also a form of beauty that dies every time it is experienced.
Perfume is a poignantly ephemeral art form: the very opposite of a historic monument. Very few masterpieces have survived the decades. Shalimar, of course, is one of them – an olfactive Taj Mahal, whose beauty, like the monument’s, is still relevant to us today. It’s likely it owes its relevance to the fact that, unlike some surviving classics, it has never stopped producing descendents: the entire oriental family, but also every vanilla-driven gourmand has not only kept it alive, but infused it with new life.