Universal Flowering’s New Film for Holy Hell Is a Dazzling, 90s Shoegaze Dreamscape
Universal Flowering's fan-favorite Holy Hell perfume is bottled in 35mm film by director Rita Ferrando.
Scent is a gateway to both conscious and unconscious memories, a delicate mix of nostalgia and future-tripping – and few niche perfumers are able to capture so much in a single scent. Courtney Rafuse is one of these perfumers, a cult favorite in the growing independent fragrance industry, who expertly bottles exquisite feelings through her brand Universal Flowering.
Now, one of Universal Flowering’s core scents Holy Hell, which Rafuse describes as “sand sparkles at the bottom of your champagne couple” is getting committed to 35mm, in a gorgeous new short film by Canadian-Argentinian director Rita Ferrando, which premieres today on NYLON.
Perfume advertising has long had the problem of trying to market something invisible, the sticky issue of marketing a feeling. It’s why perfume ads are notoriously difficult, why thinking about Nicole Kidman on a horse for Chanel No. 5 becomes a bit of a punchline. But Rafuse didn’t commission a commercial. Ferrando pitched the idea for Holy Hell: a story that evokes late-summer yearning and melancholia. The result is a physical, poetic manifestation of a scent, a short, sun-drenched film that follows a group of young women at the end of the summer. With a longing shoegaze soundtrack and dreamy visuals, the film is a work of easy beauty.
“It felt as though Rita had tapped into my dreamscape from when I was formulating the perfume: the melancholy, the warm eeriness, and all of the gentle emotion,” Rafuse tells NYLON. “She perfectly captured what I wanted to convey with scent and translated it into a visual narrative so exact. It blows my mind how talented and in touch she is.”
NYLON spoke with Ferrando ahead of the film’s premiere about the aesthetic inspiration behind the film and the challenges of capturing something invisible.
Holy Hell is available from Universal Flowering.
Tell me how you conceived of the idea for the film? What's the inspiration behind it?
I was a long time admirer of Courtney's work and I've always loved perfume ads. I think they're really fun and leave a lot of open space in terms of how you can push the creative. I pitched her an idea for the film without knowing the perfume and she thought that would work really well for Holy Hell, which is a perfume that you would wear during the summer. Courtney's told me it mixes really well with heat and sweat, and so it ended up kind of being the perfect thing for the film. Perfume ads are really beautiful: They feel more like a poem and Courtney also accompanies all the perfumes with poetry, which I think is really beautiful.
Do you have any favorite perfume commercials or ads that stand out?
I do love the Chanel ads. They’re all in this storytelling magical world. I think one of the big points of inspiration for this was this ad Gus Van Sant did for Levi's. It wasn't a perfume commercial, but it was called “For Boys in a Volvo,” and it's this short film, but I wanted something that felt more like a film than an ad, and that was a good touchstone.
How do you make a visual representation of a fragrance? Do you think the video feels how the perfume smells?
I think that the challenge was to evoke a scent, which is obviously through a medium that can't provide that fully immersive experience. But I think basing it in this peak of summer and also having it feel a bit nostalgic, the final days of summer helped as well. There was a lot of world building that we were able to achieve. Film and scent, obviously they're disconnected as a medium, but I think poetically speaking, there are similarities. I think they can be very gestural. I think what's so beautiful about them is that they're able to evoke an awakened memory that you didn't know you had, and I think it's very transformative. I hope that the film feels within that kind of world of memory. It was definitely challenging, but my practice is quite influenced by poetry, so that helps.
Was there a specific era that you were going for? Did you want to feel just kind of timeless?
It’s definitely influenced by a lot of ‘90s stuff, because I think Gus Van Sant was such a big influence. In terms of music, a lot of the stuff that I was showing musicians was Shoegaze. It's a lot of my Bloody Valentine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.