Last Sunday I spent the afternoon watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I have thought about it almost every day since. I had seen it a few years ago, but I hadn’t been as immersed in the world of scent at the time, and new aspects of the film struck me during this recent viewing.
Early in the film during Blanche and Stanley’s first meeting, she flirts with him, most likely in attempt in an attempt to get him to warm to her. She sprays him coquettishly with her perfume as she is applying it to herself, but he rebuffs her.
“Oh, I guess he’s just not the type who goes for jasmine perfume…”
And could there be no better fragrant representation for Blanche herself?? Jasmine with its famed mix of white petaled seduction underscored by its indolic underbelly. Much like Blanche herself, who on the surface exhibits such extreme femininity, all the while trying her best to disassociate herself from her “dirty” past in Oriel.
Indeed, throughout the film it is only Blanche’s bathing rituals that are highlighted more than any other character’s. It is as if she is always trying to cleanse or absolve herself from the past she is so desperate to escape from. She clings to an idealized version of herself armored in nothing but gauzy dresses and hidden behind a veil of jasmine perfume.
Although Stanley clearly never takes to her, I felt there was an undeniable sexual chemistry between the two characters if only on an archetypal level. Stanley is like a specimen of such immeasurable male machismo. He enters the film with his t-shirt wet with perspiration clinging to his skin, the scent of him, his skin, his sweat, practically visceral. Blanche is as far removed from anyone he has ever met as possible. She is hyper-feminine, and it is almost as if she is from another time entirely. She is a relic of Southern gentility with no place, or even much of a chance, to hack it in Stanley and Stella’s modern world. However, just as Blanche is a complete outsider, I got the sense throughout the film that Stanley feels like a bit of an outsider himself due to his Polish background, and while he could not for the life of himself make sense of Blanche, I think he recognized that same feeling in her and was drawn to it on some level.
When Stanley is roughly examining the contents of Blanche’s trunk he can’t make sense of the dresses, fur stoles, pearls and tiara he finds within. These items, these luxuries, have no place in his world, and he resents Blanche for bringing them into it. But for Blanche these items are practically talismanic. They are as important to her as the illusions that she so desperately clings to. They are almost like trophies, gifts from former admirers that serve as a constant reminder to the life and beauty she once had.
Her past is served out to the viewers through her glamoured reflections and Stanley’s blunt detective work. It left me with the sense that Blanche’s entire existence was solely built upon being desired by others. From the soldiers that used to call up to her from the yards of Belle Reve and the string of affairs she seemed to have embarked on at the Flamingo Hotel. Her need to be desired predicated her entire existence. Her femininity, her female essence was maybe the only thing she had to offer, and she traded upon on it to fill her need to be desired to the point of her own detriment.
Once the shoe begins to drop, and the full extent of Blanche’s past is revealed, Mitch, Stanley’s friend whom she was hoping to marry, stands her up on the night of her “25th” birthday. He comes by later that night to confront her about what Stanley has told him. He violently pushes her into the naked light where she has nowhere to hide.
“No, I don’t think I want to marry you anymore… No, you’re not clean enough to bring into the house with my mother.”
Totally dejected, Blanche retreats into her faded finery. Stanley returns from the hospital where Stella has gone to give birth to his baby in full man mode. He makes a point of putting on the silk pyjamas that he wore on his wedding night, which I took to be a reminder of the consummation of the relationship. Seeing the state Blanche is in, he becomes predatory. Almost as if he has discovered the opportunity to finally break her down.
“Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb – and, lo and behold, the place has turned to Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!”
He barrages her, verbally and physically, trying to force the truth down her throat, but Blanche is so steadfast, so desperately clinging to the falsities she sees in herself, the idealized version of herself she is trying to maintain, in her denial of her reality, she literally breaks, represented in the broken mirror.
What unnerved me the most about A Streetcar Named Desire is that it left me thinking about much of what I have read about Vivien Leigh’s later life, her bouts of bipolar disorder and reports of random sexual encounters. I wondered how close to the bone playing the character of Blanche DuBois must have cut for her. Here she is, one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century with a glittering, gilded career, all the while harboring such torturous internal mental strife.
“I am a Scorpio,” she once said. “And they eat themselves up and burn themselves out. I swing between happiness and misery. I say what I think and I don’t pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my own actions”.