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Monday, July 09, 2007

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi. The French-iest Perfumes

Writing the post about my favorite American scents made my mind wonder in the direction of yet another sweeping generalization. I realize that it is absolutely impossible to definitively describe French perfumery, the field is so large and so diverse, and perfumery as such is so closely associated in our minds (OK, in my mind) with France that the adjective, "French", next to "perfume" is almost redundant, much like "Italian" next to "pizza" or "American" next to "baseball". So what I want to talk about in this post is not French perfumes in general but the perfumes that evoke in my imagination a generalized image of the French women I admire: Francoise Sagan, Brigitte Bardot, Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve, Patricia Kaas, Carine Roitfeld, Emmanuelle Beart, Jeanne Moreau, to name just a few. And yes, they are all very different, but there is a certain something, that legendary je ne sais quoi that unites them. It is hard to describe what that something is ... effortless elegance, confidence, irreverence, an élan, a kittenish, sexy quality would describe parts but by no means the whole of the appeal. It is just ... at this point one makes a vague gesture and sighs...just that something that they have and I want to have. Taken in that context, "Frenchness" is an aspirational quality for me. Don't get me wrong, I am happy and proud to be Russian, but I like perfumes which can make me feel a little bit French. And such perfumes are the topic of this post.

So which perfumes to me are "the French-iest"? The classic, grand style of most Guerlains and Carons is undoubtedly French but I personally find that Chanel, with its pared-down elegance, is more French still. Choosing between Chanel scents, one is practically pre-conditioned to proclaim Chanel No 5 to be the most French of all, but it seems to me to be too ubiquitous and "universal" at this point to actually feel particularly French. I think that Cristalle, Chanel No 19 and above all, Chanel No 22 are especially chic, refined, and nonchalantly French.

Aldehydic fragrances in general, with their polished aura and exquisite liveliness, seem to me to be very French. Together with the marvelously warm aldehyde wonder that is Chanel No 22, Malle's Iris Poudre and L’âme Sœur by Divine more or less embody the "French-ness" for me.

The almost Severine-like (Catherine Deneuve, in Belle du Jour) duality of scents like Tubereuse Criminelle and Diorama, that irresistible, tantalizing combination of elegant, cold aloofness and lustful, practically depraved sensuality is to me French.

Coming back to Guerlain, as far as my vision of French-ness is concerned, the poignantly sharp, sublimely complex Chamade, the scent the astounding sensuality of which is inferred rather than obvious, is the French-iest Guerlain creation. It might be of course that I am influenced by the fact that the fragrance was inspired by La Chamade, a novel by one of my most favorite French writers and a French woman extraordinnaire, Francoise Sagan, but the perfume does suggest to me the sensitive and austere style of writing and the excessive hedonism of Sagan herself, and that makes Chamade very French indeed.

Perfumes that are overtly glamorous, "dressed up", opulent and rich to the point of being creamy are also very French. This is the French-ness of Marie-Antoinette's over-indulgence, of the fantastic extravagance of haute couture...Parfums de Nicolai Sacrebleu, many Patou scents, from Joy to Adieu Sagesse to Que Sais-Je, practicaly all Balenciagas, a lot of Carons, Yves Saint-Laurent's Paris and Champagne/Yvresse, Divine by Divine, Piguet Fracas, Parfumerie Generale Bois de Copaiba, and, funnily enough, the Omani Amouage Gold and the American Amoureuse (both, however, created by French perfumers) are among such perfumes.

And last but most certainly not least, scents that possess a kittenish, coquettish, playful, pouty, pinup-ish, Brigitte-Bardot-like quality are most definitely very French. The prime examples would be the unapologetically feminine, joyful and coy Lipstick Rose by Frederic Malle and Fifi Chachnil, which hides a husky, sophisticated sensuality under a deceptively girly exterior.

Which scents, to you, are the most French? Please share!

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Blogger Unknown said...

You are russian? You write pretty good for a non-native english speaker ! (unless ofcourse you were raised in an english speaking country)

French perfumes? Loaded with vanilla/amber and stinky. I would say Egoiste and Frederic Malle Bigarade Concentree off the top of mu head.

1:24 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I watched the film Mr. Hulot's Holiday recently, I kept thinking all the women were wearing vintage Patou, though not Que sais-je, to the beach. Unfortunately, as this is the only discontinued Patou I know, Que sais-je is it. :-)

I think of Chanels as being very French, very pared down to the elegant essentials. OTOH, Bal a Versailles is very, very French in a so very different, Louis XIV-XVI way.

1:55 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Soir de Paris" the old version loved by my Mama who cant stand the new version
Isnt it so that we the Slavs, have always been francofiles as to fashion, fragrances etc I to fragrances

4:06 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bigarade Concentree doesn't strike me as classically french, or loaded with vanilla/amber for that matter (nor Egoiste either now I think about it).

I'd like to know what Fanny Ardant wears. She's my French crush...

5:26 AM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Wonderful post! I'm going to have to break out the No. 31 today, which is the most recent of the scents I turn to for French days. Loved the ones on your list. For me, I'd add FM PdT, L'Interdit, Arpege and Attrape Coeur.

6:46 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Thank you :-)
Egoiste is definitely very, very French. Love it.

8:14 AM EDT  
Blogger carmencanada said...

Dear M., I like (love) your choices. Chanel is indeed the quintessence of French pared-down, bourgeois elegance. Aldehydic have that insolent, champagne sparkle... The over-the-top Marie-Antoinette and Bardot sex-kitten archetype now survive only in the archives though. What's missing would be the more modern, laid-back, bohemian French type exemplified by the (admittedly half-Brit) likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg: a scruffier version of the pared-down aesthetic. Shies away from the parfum de maman. Wears one of the Goutal Eaux (Hadrien, Charlotte, Camille).

8:18 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I absolutely agree about Chanels and Bal- 2 totally different ways to be totally French :-)
Perhaps the women in Mr. Hulot's Holiday wore Chaldee, which was first launched by Patou as a tanning lotion, Huile de Chaldee. Or maybe they wore Vacances. :-)

8:18 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I was just thinking about that when I was writing the post. We are francophiles :-)

8:19 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Bigarade does have some skank in it, I think. But I do think that Egoiste is even French-er. Ooh, that's an idea! I should do Men's French-iest Scents :-)

Fanny Ardant is a goddess. She should wear classic Guerlains. Shalimar, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue...

8:21 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I absolutely agree with all your choices! And of them all, I think, 31 Rue Cambon is the French-iest! :-)

8:23 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Please don't break my illusions. :-) Let me have my idealized image. No scruffiness ;-D

8:25 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

I keep thinking of First by Van Cleef & Arpels as very French, a smooth, understated, elegant French, but definitely French 100%.

10:57 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love all of your choices, especially Chanel No.22, though I associate that scent more with someone like Grace Kelly, the epitome of elegance. I adore the Carons for their "Frenchness", especially a scent like Nuit de Noel, which I think Catherine Deneuve would pull off beautifully. L'Heure Bleue is another very French scent that she would (and does, I think) wear.

Great post, Marina! :-)

11:06 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I agree, definitely!

11:16 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Thank you! Grace Kelly is one of my...ashamed to use this word as it makes me feel like a teenager, but of my idols :-) I love the idea of her wearing No 22!

11:18 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, she's my girl crush. :-)

11:22 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Mine too! And Deneuve. And, as you may have noticed :-), Monroe.

11:25 AM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...

I always think of Piguet (even though he was born SSwiss) as the epitome of Frenchness: Fracas with it's almost wild femininity and Bandit, that whip-crack androgyne. I can't think of another country that would have dared to produce such fragrances..

11:51 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I 100% agree :-)

11:53 AM EDT  
Blogger donanicola said...

Love this post, thanks Marina! I think I recently read that at a party Luca Turin attended someone told him that Guerlain was for cocottes (I think I have the spelling right - anyway, a bit demi monde) and Caron for the aristocracy. Hm, I shall have to check. Anyway, the only scent I would add to your beautiful and comprehensive list is Rochas Femme, in both its formulations. I could "see" Juliette Binoche wearing it.

12:05 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I heard that story too and I could never quite figure out why such a distinction was made. I feel that both are equally perfectly suited for cocottes and countesses :-)
Femme is so very, very French, definitely!

12:08 PM EDT  
Blogger donanicola said...

That's it! Cocottes and countesses. Most peculiar. Je ne comprende pas mais je suis Rosbif!

12:26 PM EDT  
Blogger Gaia said...

This is a hard one. It's interesting to see how we all precieve Frenchness, especially since most (all?) of the comments here are by non-French. We all have an idea(l) in our minds and noses, and I wonder how real/French it really is and how much it's just our Parisian fantasy. After all, France is just as much Louid de Funes as it is Carine Roitfeld. Whatever it is, mine is Piguet, Caron and Goutal. Chanel is way too cosmopolitan (not to say ubiquitous) and just make me think of the tourist-filled boutiques.

12:28 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...


12:30 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Oh, mine is a complete, stereotypical fantasy :-) But I like it that way. :-)
I agree about Piguet and Caron! I am going to think about Goutal. For some reason I've never thought of her as French, I don't know why...

12:32 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you mentioned the Divine fragrances in this category. Of all the lines I've tried in the last year, this one strikes me as the 'French-iest'. And in a very good way. :)

12:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Gaia said...

Marina, I see Goutal as very French because the first of the range I ever tried was Grand Amour, which to me smells classic French.

12:43 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I think so too. Overall, I think it is a wonderful line!

12:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Oh yes! Definitely Grand Amour!!

12:45 PM EDT  
Blogger NowSmellThis said...

Great post! My vote is Jicky, which seems to combine all the elements that I think of as French.

1:06 PM EDT  
Blogger IrisLA said...

Hermes 24, Faubourg is the epitome of French elegance. Someone once described it as a Birkin in a bottle. I love it even though it does not suit my casual lifestyle; hence, I seldom reach for it.

1:09 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Interesting! I've been flummoxed by romanticism of the story of the perfumer's love to an English girl, and have always thought of Jicky as "English" :-D But now that you said it...I can see it your way too, definitely.

1:12 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I totally, totally, totally agree!! Gosh, I suddenly crave it so much. *wanders off in search of a drop of 24 F.*

1:13 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

I very much agree with your choices. For some reason, Hermes Faubourg 24 is very French to me. Also, Magie Noire but that's due to associations from childhood - the fascination with French perfumes in the USSR, especially everything Lancome. :)

Agree with Carmencanada on the bohemian, laid-back types. Sad but true.

1:34 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I so agree on Magie Noire and Climat and all the scents that our moms and their friends had back then. It all seemed so very chic and French :-) And it still does!

1:36 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to chime in for the original Femme and Paris.

2:53 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Great choices, both of them!

2:58 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, I have a very ambivalente relationship to French, in spite of having one very stubborn one in my household (my HB) - however, in the meantime (after those 5 years together) I can see at least few positive things to say about France and the French (well, not much, but few...).
So I represent here the antifrench !
For me the frenchiest are the old Calech (which actually smells unpleasent to me) and Mitsouko, and Chanel #5, of course.
IMO the newer perfumes lost that good old frenchiness (and young french girls eat McDonalds what makes them fat).
Even the french aren't as they were before...

3:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I was reading Mirielle Guiliano's book, French Women Don't Get Fat, and she does rue the fact that the younger generation is in fact getting fat because of McD, etc.
I have an American DH and he is also stubborn. I think it's the characteristic of DHs as species :-)

3:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Paula Williams said...

I bet the French wonder why they sell so much Viagra in America and so little perfume. . .

Actually, so do I!

3:59 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Paula & John,
I think the US perfume market is quite big. You now made me wonder what country consumes the most viagra :-)

4:14 PM EDT  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

Hmmmm.......Diorissimo for Spring, YSL Paris for Summer. Magie Noire or Shalimar for Autumn, Caron's Nuit de Noel for Winter. Bal a Versaille's for ALWAYS! I am such a sucker for them all......

4:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Bal a Versailles for always, definitely!

4:47 PM EDT  
Blogger Paula Williams said...

My favorites have always been Orientals - even French Orientals (is that a contradiction?) - Big opulent heavy ones like Opium and Byzance.

3:34 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Both are masterpieces for sure.

3:36 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may want to consider Yves Saint Laurent's, Paris. This brings forth images of the great courtisans dinning at Maxim's. Decadence that flows from an erotic orchestra of thier combined scents, sumptuous seven course dishes with a finish of old champagne & cigars. Really, really French.

1:50 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Dear S,
Paris was actually included in the post.I absolutely agree, it is very French :-)

8:46 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to douse myself in Chanel no 5 when I watch old French movies. Strange, non?
I spent my eighteenth birthday in Paris wearing Chanel Mademoiselle, a whiff of that perfume takes me back in a second.
What about us Brits then, eh? I'm curious!

3:35 PM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

Alice Rose,
I might of course be influenced by the legend of one of the Guerlains falling in love with an English girl and naming a perfume after her, but I always think of Jicky as of an "English" fragrance.

3:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Kristal said...

A very french like perfume in the oriental style is Flower by Kenzo(although from a japanese house but 100% parisian). Also Hypnotic Poison and Pure Poison by Dior.For me Chanel fragrance equal 0 .... i dont get anything from them ( well, maybe a litlle bit from Coco, but that's all). Y by YSL is a great perfume- the perfume of an elegance, a perfume to be worn for itself ,not for a man. I sometimes wear when I want to "behave" :))
I am about a quarter french and to me a perfume has to be seet, intoxicating,flowery, sexy and aluring. Pure Poison is the closest to my liking but unfortunately lacks staying power.

I remember my mother wearing Weill de Weill and L'Air De Temps by Nina Ricci... and smelling divine... Nevertheless, when I sniffed The last one recently I recognised nothing of my so old and beloved memories.

2:24 PM EST  

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