Like Chinese Whispers, ideas that pass through different hands undergo a metamorphosis; their stories morph through the artistic prisms of different media, of different minds. La Belle Helene, a fruity chypre from Parfums MDCI is a perfume teased from the classical French dessert, Poires Belle-Helene – itself a gustatory reimagining of Offenbach’s 1864 operetta La Belle Helene, a parody on the onset of the Trojan War and Helen’s elopement from Paris. Whereas the dessert pays homage to the operetta with pears poached in sugar syrup, adorned with pod speckled vanilla ice cream, gilded with rich chocolate sauce and the amethystine jewels of crystalised violets, perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour plays out a rococo interpretation draped between modern chypre and velveteen oriental facets: an abstract, thoroughbred gourmand shot through a fruity-woody structure.
Just as in the most delicious desserts, the success of perfume is in the balance. Rather than the dense indulgence you might expect from a perfume based on pudding, La Belle Helene flirts with suggestions of the tantalizing and sumptuous but ultimately pushes back from gluttony: its decadence is portioned, understated, brief – like that of an amuse-bouche or a single spoonful of ganache sucked from a cold silver spoon. It is a house of cards, tense and fragile in equal measure, pitched and poised at a ginger equilibrium. Taken as a whole in fact its rather understated, even somewhat aloof in parts. At the top a cool, transparent shot of aldehydic lime tickles the nose elevating the glossy, rich floral heart and allowing, even at this stage, a flash of the dark ambered base to flicker through. My very favourite part, and to my mind perhaps this perfume’s most striking feature, comes soon after – an interplay of hawthorn and dry vetiver, which alongside the floral-leathery character of osmanthus conjures a near photorealist image of pear skin. This contradiction between rough, freckled skin – the texture of velvet rubbed in reverse – and succulent, lush flesh is a startling olfactory still life, completely delicious in its tangibility. It’s a very grown up, refined approach to ‘fruity’, eschewing the all too often saccharine, hyperglycemic shock of one dimensional, ‘shampoo’ pear accords.
As it dries, these grainy edges are lulled by a voluptuous fresh/cold lipstick accord – the rose and orris emulating the sweet puckering waxiness of vintage makeup, and further enriched by the tiniest amount of the burnt butteriness of ylang-ylang. Played in symphony with the rich and warm sugar plum and crystalline violet the heart is a floral fruity miscellany that through its layered chorus straddles the line just so between boudoir and bakery.
After this swell of the heart the base cuts in a more sober angle. A sitting up straight as the dusty cocoa, mossy qualities of cedar, a pinch of the bitter-spiced resin of myrrh and a prominent anisic licorice combine to ground the long ebbing half-life of this perfume in quotations of classical orientalism. A light hand of white musk, delicate as icing sugar and pearlescent as face powder, serves to feather dust and feminise, cocooning the base in its characteristic sense of lived in skin.
This is a clever, technically exciting perfume but it also wears with a beautiful naturalism and ease. Sharing a several times removed kinship with Feminite du Bois, and recalling at points both Caron’s Parfum Sacre (in its sweet, lipstick rose dustiness) and even Lolita Lempicka (through its fantastical violet-licorice dance between gourmand ‘feminine’ notes and baritone ‘masculine’ ones) La Belle Helene is a modern take on the baroque fruity chypre, a tease between sensuality and sobriety. A merging of cultural high society chypre and the fun loving, sweet toothed gourmand, it is in turns both sexy and cerebral; a perfume in which all constituent parts speak to each other fluently, creating a subtly shifting prism. A dappling effect in tones of muted pistachio and viridian drawing together complimentary textures from opposing surfaces: glossy and dry, silk and leather, cool and comfort. In its medley of perfectly pitched discord between realism and fantasy, it is a perfume unusual enough to be both strange and beautiful, mischievous but never weird. It’s seductive in it’s meeting of distinctive peculiarity and warm familiarity – interesting and easy to wear, it has elegance and sexiness running through it in parallel from top to bottom. This richness served with a deft hand conjures a sort of Marie Antoinette a la mode aesthetic – powdered and cheeky, tucked and puckered and flashing winks of pillowed flesh, managing at a step back to be both an alluring and absolutely satisfying.