The first time I encountered Bal a Versailles was in Luca Turin’s original Le Guide from 1992. There is something in reading about a perfume that you think that you will never be able to get your hands on that almost makes it more enjoyable: the thrill of the holy grail; the abstract, luscious taunting of the unreachable and unattainable. I can see myself poring over his reviews again and again, dreaming and yearning, trying to prise apart his spare, poetic French, his enticing yet hermetically sealed descriptions of long lost perfumes by Molyneux, Jacomo, Revillon, of the just opened Shiseido Palais Royal, of dozens of delectable sounding perfumes I would probably never smell in the future and just feel my internal organs clenching up with intense longing; an almost masochistic craving that was acutely pleasurable even when unfulfilled. His cunning words painted sufficiently salivating, impressionistic pictures to gloriously pique my curiosity and vainly try to imagine how this legendary perfume, the famous Bal A Versailles, must actually smell.
In his review of this scent, if I remember correctly (it has been some years), there was, naturally, a fantastical, extravagant ball; the richly dressed revellers close and thronging; splendorously bedecked: and our heroine, barefoot, dancing feistily and libidinously near the feast’s kitchens, oblivious to protocol and convention, under a sky lit up respendently with fireworks. Turin touched brilliantly on the tightrope walk between glittering, sun-god richesse and glaring vulgarity in his descriptions, and make no mistake about it, Bal A Versailles does have a huge thwack of the vulgar, dolloped adoringly in its glowing, syruped, accords: it is lurid, sweaty, thick with those oily, glinting floral paints of liquorous orange blossom, rose absolutes, and pissy, indolic jasmine essences; all glinted and carnivaled up even further with notes of rosemary and mandarin, of lemon and of lilac; a riot; a mess of gilded lacquer to hide what we then know full well is about to come – that base: the sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, castoreum; the resins, the benzoin and tolu balsam; the vanilla, the musks, but most of all the civet, the lick of a thriving, voluptuous tongue on the neck, the tiny, ensensitized, golden hairs shivering with anticipation of what is about to come if she can just slip quietly away from those dastardly crowds….away from the mirrored magnificence, the powdered perruques; the politesse and refinement; and into the arms of the bestial, nourishing pleasures to be had in the shadows behind the beckoning marquee; lace-ripping throats thrust down hungrily on grass. Flesh, and lavish: full, greedy kisses.
Yes, Luca Turin knew full well that this perfume is certainly verging on the tacky, on the grotesque even, but that it is also irrevocably majestic and sumptuous. Its turgid, engorged elegance does not give a fig about standard, common decency, but is more a perfume for those who live for hedonism and the fleshly, epicurean pleasures. An aristocratic vulgarity, then – knowingly fun and ribald; regal, radiant and jasmined, but equally, filthily indecorous.
When I first then came across a vintage parfum of Bal A Versailles at a fleamarket (in vaporisateur form; somehow the most intensive experience one can have of this perfume, with all the notes blocked together so handsomely), having been ravished by the base notes I of course then wanted to know more, and looking among all the blogs, discovered some brilliant reviews that if you are interested in finding more about this rightfully much loved cult scent, you simply must read. The Non-Blonde encapsulates its essence most perfectly, and coincidentally invokes one of my favourite films, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the process to contextualize the masked, sordid orgies of the perfume’s base, the frank and unapologizing eros at its heart. Like me, she believes that there is a right time and wrong time for this perfume; you really have to get it right : on dirty skin and in summer I would rather die, seriously: in winter, especially in snow, after a long hot bath with candles and the right soaps; perfect, warm, clean skin, letting the parfum sink in slowly into your chemistry, and, in my own case, possibly topping it all with talcs, just because; to lock it in nicely like a she-wolf under glass; lying, patiently, like a dandy in my bathrobe, waiting for this perfume’s slow, rich, magic to take effect……..When I do this, and have judiciously chosen the right time to wear her; when I walk out into the icy, wintery night and feel the eskimo furred, languorous and purring warmth of the vanillic ambers rising up subtlely and slowly from my skin, a burnished nuzzling halo of secrets and longings, loving, three dimensional, alive, I sometimes think that there is no better perfume on this earth.
I am not alone. Another seminal review of Bal A Versailles that I have read many a time was by one Beth on Perfume Smellin Things, an almost uncomfortably passionate account of how this perfume defined a tumultuous love affair that almost destroyed her, but which ultimately, now, only gives extra symbolism to a perfume she loves more than any other: a private, engorging triumph of a scent that she says is her, that encompasses all she is. This is a must-read. You can smell her affair in this piece. It is raw and dark, erotic, and quite emotionally wrenching. Yet as much as I love this smell and must always have some in my collection, I could never feel the same as this writer: it is simply too complex, embroiled; too basically disgusting for me to have as my signature. It would be like subsisting solely on truffes and chocolate ganaches. It would be sickening. And yet when I find it on the cheap here in Japan, always exciting as I love the box and bottle (why is there so much of this stuff here? It seems like the last place on earth where such a perfume would be acceptable?) I often buy it, whether to give it to others, or to wear by myself once the temperatures drop enough for it to feel right. It is not an easy perfume to just leave there on the shelf. Too precious. A treasure. Yet as I keep saying, get it wrong, as I did on Saturday night when I just wanted to scrub myself down in a citric, lemony shower and felt embarrassed to be out in public (particularly with Duncan in an uncharacteristic overdose of Jicky parfum), you end up regretting it all night, as those sour, pungent indoles and curdling, animalic florals begin to slowly eat you alive like starving leopards at the circus. Get it right, though, and it is animalic perfection, like being consumed, and seduced, by a beautiful, heavy breathing panther.
And speaking of beasts, there is one other review that is absolutely essential, one of the funniest I have ever read. Perfume Posse was always amusing in any case, but the review of Bal A Versailles on there is quite hilarious, collating all the splayed-open, beastly horror stories in one, rip-roaring go. Needless to say, despite the bawdy humour and the scatalogical jokes; the talk of cat butts and horse dung; of indoles and foulness; all those who rant and rave about this perfume on that forum do say that, ultimately, when all is said and done, that despite, and because, of its glistening over-complexity, its richness and filth; its unsuitablity for polite society – a perfume you must keep as a private, guilty secret, a perfume to scandalize even yourself – they absolutely love it.
And so do I.