How did candles become so entwined with the concept of seduction? Was it eighties erotic thrillers with questionable (and flammable) set design? The soap opera cliche of wives with tardy husbands angrily blowing out the dinner candles and sending the ruined meal crashing into the sink? The Gothic governess meeting the moody master of the house up late and investigating strange noises? Over time and via numerous cultural references it’s been bred into us that unless there are candles, it may be sex but it’s not seduction.
It makes sense in the abstract of course. Candles by their very design are intimate, throwing just enough light to see what’s in front of you and obscuring the rest. Seduction is all about concentration after all, an intense focus on the one you’re with, and a skill we’re losing with every swipe. And here’s the science bit; low light tells our circadian rhythms to move into relaxation mode, and causes our pupils to dilate – a subconscious attraction signal. But back to cultural moments that fed into this connection between candlelight and romance.
The risk factor.
In The Dreamers – Bertolucci’s 2003 love letter to cinema that introduced a generation to Eva Green, Louis Garrel and aesthetically pleasing perversion – Green and Garrell play Theo and Isabelle, twin cinephiles who invite American exchange student Matthew into their home. That first night, when Isabelle leans in to bid Matthew goodnight, her hair ignites shockingly on a nearby candle and Matthew extinguishes the flame with his hands. Isabelle keeps her cool and takes the opportunity to kiss the surprised and concerned Matthew on the lips, leaving us wondering; was that the plan all along? A moment of peril to focus desire. How daring, how reckless, how French! Don’t try this at home ladies or luscious haired gentlemen. If fire symbolises passion, candles are passion left mostly to the imagination, only hinting at the possibility of an inferno.
A ‘Call Me’ Candle Spell.
The punk seamstress and artist Alex Michon once told us a failsafe spell to make an object of desire contact you, swearing it worked exactly as prescribed for her. Since we’ve never found it written down anywhere, its word-of-mouth delivery imbues it with a believability you don’t get by googling. So from us to you.
‘Pick any candle but the long tapered ones are best. Mark the wax part way down with a knife and say the name of the object of your desire. When the candle burns down to the mark… your phone will ring.’
The lesson we take from this is the power of the voice in inspiring passion. From time to time it’s necessary to break the dm habit and embrace the intimacy of whispering straight into someone’s ear.
2020’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of two women – the depressed Héloïse, who has returned from a convent after the suicide of her sister, and Marianne, the artist who has been hired to covertly paint her portrait for the nobleman she’s to be married off to. The titular scene happens midway through the film when Marianne, realising she’s developing feelings for Héloïse, dreams of holding a candle to the painting closer and closer until it catches fire and ruins the planned betrayal. In Marianne’s talented hands, the candle is a tool of destruction that eliminates the barriers between the women, at least in fantasy.
Readers of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle may remember it as the first time they heard of the concept of dressing by candlelight. You might be forgiven for thinking at first that the book is set in the Victorian times or earlier, as it tells the story of a family living in a derelict castle and hoping to marry the eldest daughter to the landlord. But sisters Rose and Cassandra are living in the 1930s and their strange habitat and poverty are due to the eccentric whims of their writer father and artist’s model stepmother. When they meet The Cottons, an American family who have just inherited their estate, Rose is determined to marry the eldest brother Simon, even if he does have a horrible beard. The stakes are high then, when the sisters dress for a party at the Cottons house. Cassandra in a green dress a little two tight for her and Rose in a new pink one that everyone scraped together to make.
‘It was thrilling when we started to get dressed.’ says Cassandra, implying that the ritual is almost a game for the sisters at this stage. ‘There was still some daylight left, but we drew the curtains and brought up the lamp and lit candles, because I once read that women of fashion dress for candlelight by candlelight.’
With the whole family geared towards this single seduction, and the sisters rehearsing how it might go in their heads, in a way it’s complete before it even begins. It reminds us that any romantic occasion will turn out better if we seduce ourselves first. Try it with Virgin; the smell of potential is perfect for projecting your desires.
Words by Sarah Kathryn Cleaver