Spike Jonze’s New Ad for Kenzo
Disrupting Fine Fragrance and Femininity
It is difficult not to enjoy Kenzo’s new fragrance ad, directed by Spike Jonze, staring Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers), filmed in a modernist music hall in Los Angeles, and set to a dancehall track originally produced by Ape Drum and Vibes Kartel. Kenzo’s cultural collision captures our attention by dismantling and destroying our perceptions of the fine fragrance category and femininity.
The short film begins with a scene repeated countless times in different manifestations across fragrance communications: beautiful, young girl living an unbearably limited existence in a world where she feels isolated and unfulfilled. Her suppressed senses are epitomised by the muted muffle of the speaker’s voice and the display of insipid pink orchids lying on the table in front of her—a twist on the typical portrayal of flowers in fragrance ads often used to heighten sensory engagement and tell an evocative story around the origins of the perfume itself.
She makes an excuse and politely leaves the room. Finding herself alone, the ‘perfume pill’ kicks in and she starts to come up: her intoxicated trip of a lifetime, where she will find herself whilst escaping reality, begins. Taking a break from the slow, emotionally charged music we hear in other fine fragrance ads, Jonze’s ingenious dancehall track of choice sparks a very immediate, visceral, and uncontrollable reaction.
Charging around the empty corridors of the venue to a dance routine, which is sort of a mash-up of other dances while also incomparable to anything else, the stale grace and beauty depicted in the opening scene is left behind. Big black knickers flashing and hair becoming loose, Qualley owns the space—dancing like no one’s watching as if exploring a desolate space in a virtual reality world. Her movements are purposeful and angry, clumsy and riddled with imperfections, yet we envy her freedom.
A killing scene occurs upon crossing a potential threat/innocent bystander, after which Qualley continues destroying the interior façade by firing shots through her fingers. The video is the meeting of sci-fi and supernatural movie nostalgia. From recent popular culture, the Kenzo girl isn’t far from Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or Eleven (Stranger Things). Both Rey and Eleven are brave loners trying to survive in bleak circumstances. Their unparalleled superpowers are just as much their downfall, the story behind their abandonment and the reason they are eventually “chosen.” Nonetheless, these women defend themselves and protect their friends. Their femininity is self-defined and about being in control of their own bodies. Like Qualley, their ungoverned characters reclaim ownership as autonomous subjects, not objects.
While danger, temptation and lack of control are familiar clichés in the fine fragrance world, Kenzo’s new ad subverts these themes by pairing them not with romance and sexual transgression but with a desire to give in to hidden facets of personal identity.
In the penultimate scene, the Kenzo girl dances on stage under a spotlight to an empty theatre. Feeling the pressure of silent spectatorship, she falls from the edge of the stage—a suicide that could represent a decision to reclaim personal expression.
Qualley ferociously dances towards and jumps though the Kenzo eye, destroying its delicately placed petals as if confronting both vision and scent simultaneously, awakening a new and more confrontational sensory world whilst shattering illusions of strength and perceptions of femininity. The tensions that exist within her and the fine fragrance world form a beautiful collision. The Kenzo girl finally finds a way to embody her true identity, crafted through the freedom to test and define the limitations of her own body.
– Grace Flavin