Screen Time: The Smell of Ambition in “American Hustle”

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Mr. TC and I went to see “American Hustle” at the movies last weekend. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. This won’t be a movie review—you can just go read what David Denby wrote in The New Yorker!—but I need to mention a brief but crucial scene that included a telling reference to scent.

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Con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the somewhat gullible mayor of Camden, New Jersey, are having a fancy dinner out with their wives, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Elisabeth Röhm. It’s all part of Irving’s strategy to woo Polito into an urban-revival deal that will inevitably turn out to be too good to be true.

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Rosalyn Rosenfeld is just along for the ride—she knows nothing of her husband’s latest scheme—and she’s wearing a leopard-print, halter-top jumpsuit (vintage!) and a glossy red manicure. She discusses her nails with Dolly Polito, girl to girl:

“I chip them moving furniture. It’s my new obsession. Moving, redecorating—it makes me feel better, like exercise. But there’s this topcoat that you can only get from Switzerland, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do, because I’m running out of it, but I love the smell of it. Irv and I can’t get enough of it.”

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She continues, “The topcoat—it’s like, perfumey, but there’s also something, rotten—and I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, it’s true! Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty and foul! It is true, it is true!”

(She’s right: in all the great, classic perfumes, for every jasmine, there’s ambergris; for every rose, there’s civet musk. These ingredients can be hair-raisingly putrid on their own, but they add structure and longevity to the conventionally beautiful floral and fruit notes of the fragrance.)

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Rosalyn offers her husband her fingertips to smell, and this is obviously a little ritual of theirs: “Irving loves it. He can’t get enough of that smell.”

Then she instructs her husband’s new friend to take a whiff.

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She says, extending her hand, “Carmine! Sweet and sour. Rotten and delicious.”

He replies (as gentlemanly as can be), “It smells like flowers.”

And she corrects him, “Flowers, but with garbage!. . . .That’s what hooks you.”

In this story, you can’t have the good without the bad. Every character and every interaction in American Hustle is a mix of hope and desperation, striving and corruption. Good intentions are inextricably tangled with deception and betrayal. As Bale’s character says in another scene of the movie, “The world is not black and white. It’s gray. Extremely gray.”

It’s a complicated dance.

You can view the entire dinner-table scene here:

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