NARCISSE NOIR by CARON (I9II)

 

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Narcisse Noir is to Caron what Shalimar is to Guerlain, or Nº5 to Chanel : the perfume upon which the house’s fortune was first established, that made its name, and that subsequently became a legend in perfumed history.

 

The destinies of these three very diverse creations were not to be similar.While Shalimar’s timeless vanillic beauty still feels relevant, purring and sexy, and N°5 – a beautiful, shimmering, and feminine creation – is still relentlessly promoted as the juggernaut that powered Chanel and one of the world’s bestsellers even to this day, Narcisse Noir, a shadowed and exotic creation, has completely faded into obscurity, known only to perfumisti, those who have worn it for a lifetime, and the dwindling number of people who still frequent the dusty old Caron boutiques on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris or New York’s Lexington Avenue.

 

Despite the very particular beauty of this perfume, it not difficult to understand why it would have faded from favour. Narcisse Noir simply smells of another age and time; of boudoirs, dressing rooms, heavy velvet drapes and black lace and crinoline; of dark colonial exploits and influence – I have always felt that this perfume smells very Indian – and, more importantly perhaps, a different kind of sensuality: this is not, by any means, a perfume made to seduce in the traditional light and floral manner by being virginalized, fluttering, and coy. Rather, the vintage parfum and eau de parfum of Narcisse Noir are, comparatively, mannish and challenging; deep,solidly assured: the erotic aggressive to your passive.

 

Essentially, this sunless, stygian floral is a rich narcissus/boisé/animale blend, based, so it is claimed, on an essence of Persian black narcissus, a prominent, citrus-glinted, tainted orange blossom, and heavy, civet-touched sandalwood and vetiver over the classic Ernst Daltroff mousse de saxe base, the musty and antique-smelling sediment in many classic Caron perfumes that is, in my view, the reason that these perfumes, though compelling, now simply seem too old fashioned to the average modern consumer.

 

This depends though. Nao, the dancer seen standing next to Duncan in my piece on Sunday night’s shenanigans, The Soft Touch, was immediately quite intrigued by this perfume when I offered it to her; an instant reaction of hai, this has fukami, depth, and definite fuinki- (atmosphere): she could feel the history and the stories rising up from it from one inhalation and I love it when certain perfumes gain such a reaction, suggesting their intrinsic appeal and beauty, no matter that they are over a century old.

 

In fact, the versions of this perfume I have – one particular vintage extrait and an eau de cologne ( whose box’s motif forms the header on this blog, along with a fresh narcissus flower from our garden – there was never going to be any other name for this website: narcissus, hyacinth and f*** being my three favourite words in the English language) – are not anywhere near as potent or as impressive as the bottle of Narcisse Noir I remember my friend Claire having at Cambridge: an eau de parfum that was wonderfully dense, compressed and above all, really definitively sultry in its strength and sillage: I once took her bottle when she wasn’t looking and heavily sprayed the inside of my flute case with it (which later became embarrassing when I would then have to open it at the trio practice I used to do at a baroque recorder cafe just down the hill from where we live – the smell lingered for years).

 

It was bewitching, though, this scent – the oil of jonquil interwoven with that malingering orange blossom and narcissus, but always, always with that plush dark carpet of animalic woods and musks underlining it that smelled like the smoke of Indian incense. It was a perfume that made you wonder, that drew you in even as it scared, and I can imagine it having been enormously seductive in the smoky atmospheres into which it debuted all those bygone decades ago, when the perfume was so current and successful that Caron could compete with Coty and his like in America; Caron’s big perfume: the scent of Gloria Swanson’s tragic Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

 

 

 

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And on the subject of film, is this not in fact also the drowsy perfume that becomes the fatal undoing of the nuns in Black Narcissus, Powell & Pressburger’s brilliantly high-nerved thriller from I947, set vertiginously up in the Himalayan mountains; that strange-pitched and hysterical film about a group of sisters cloistered on a cliff-side convent, unravelling as warm, perturbing and sensuous winds form a mind-turning constant and the nuns’ precarious religious conviction gradually comes undone through their contact with the locals and the presence of men?

 

 

 

Is not perfume itself, in this masterpiece, the catalyst that leads to eventual madness and death as well as ecstatic liberation? Scent is the unavoidable presence that insinuates and lodges itself into the minds of these susceptible women on the fateful day that an Indian prince – almost impossibly sweet and pure of intention – enters the convent for English instruction – always in sumptuous jewels and white robes – and provides distraction from God. But it is his perfume – called Black Narcissus – that forms not only the title of the film, but also, seemingly, the central component that makes the nuns succumb to their vulnerable humanity and to the elements, the scent of his perfume emanating serenely but disconcertingly from his handkerchieves and making them then unable to think clearly.

 

 

 

 

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Can this perfume not be seen as Caron’s Narcisse Noir itself? The direct translation of the French from the name of such a famous perfume seems much too obvious to be a coincidence, even as it gains an extra magic layer in its starker, Anglicized transformation. Surely they are one and the same, and indeed, this perfume does really smell wonderful on a man: swarthy, royal; elegantly poised. I can imagine how the nuns must have felt when he walked into the room. Duncan, dressed as Echo on Sunday night, trying desperately to distance Narcissus from his mirrors; the gentle swathes of Narcisse Noir drifting from his person; and me,’The Black Narcissus’ in the audience, looking, reacting; inhaling him.

26 Comments

Filed under Narcissus

26 responses to “NARCISSE NOIR by CARON (I9II)

  1. Magic, sheer magic. No coincidence. It is one of my favourites movies with incredible acting and the landscape frowning down upon those barbarian meddling nuns.
    The connection with the perfume was brought to me by you, as you aptly recommended going The Caron Way.
    That Echo will stay and not fade. A bouquet for the performers from a spring bursting city: Tulips from Amsterdam to Japan.

  2. I wondered if you were ever going to review this one 😉

    I have to admit I love both the scent and the movie. I own a somewhat recend EdP (bought at the Caron boutique in 2005), and the orange blossom + incense combination is still stunning.

    As for the film, dear heavens, just bury me with a Powell & Pressburger DVD collection. The scene where Sister Ruth takes off her habit and applies red lipstick is one of the most powerful expressions of feminine sexuality I ever saw on film.

  3. Holly

    Brilliant. I love the movie, and I love Narcisse Noir. As usual, your writing renders me awed and speechless.

  4. Renee Stout

    As I was reading this, I had to go put on some of my vintage Narcisse Noir parfum and then layer it with vintage NN edt. I’ll be wearing this all day…gorgeous!

  5. A ravishing parfum, a glorious movie and a magnificent review! I was hoping for quite a while that this review was going to happen and you did it to perfection.
    Even though I have to admit that Narcisse Noir is a scent very much of its time, well, it is still a fabulous time capsule of how glorious a scent could truly be. It is truly intoxicating. One can see how the movie could be built around this scent as a central theme. It is very much like the scene in the movie where the nun, and everyone else, becomes acutely aware of the strange intoxicating scent emanating from the young prince; he, without guile, shares that it is Black Narcissus. I adore the way this scene plays out, the young prince enveloped in scent, not truly aware of its hypnotic and intoxicating power, is just the flame the others are drawn towards, or rather the scent is the flame. You just can see and feel the effect this intoxicating scent is having on the others; deprived nuns, the poor girl in all her unworldly ignorance, all are being captivated. That is the true power, even to this day, of Narcisse Noir. You could understand how it could drive one to madness.

    • How gloriously put yourself. I agree that in the finer editions of Narcisse Noir there is something genuinely intoxicating and dark – I keep saying dark I can’t help it – that draws you in like a moth. It was a truly mysterious and totem like perfume.

      • Thank you :). Dark is a perfect adjective for NN. I wore it yesterday and it does have a certain dark and mystical quality to it. The orange blossom in it is not bright and enveloping, it is truly dark and intoxicating. This is one scent were seeking out the vintage extrait is well worth it.

  6. Good afternoon Black Narcissus. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on your namesake perfume.

    I was hoping you might be able to tell me if you khow when, and for how long, Caron used that specific paper (on your header) to wrap the boxes their bottles name in. I recently purchased a bottle still in its packaging and it uses this particular pattern on its outer paper wrapping. Any thoughts would be greatly welcomed.

    Any resources that you know that do a particularly good job is assisted with dating old Caron bottles in general would be appreciated as well.

    Thank you and keep up the good work!

    • I LOVE that Caron box to death, which is precisely why I put it as the Black Narcissus’ header, but sadly I am just the kind of perfumaniac who waxes about scent without knowing anything about specifics in production etc so sorry I can’t help you there. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Lilybelle

    I loved reading this this morning. Narcisse Noir is a difficult one for me. It’s truly dark as you say and airless. “Sunless and stygian” are perfect descriptors. It is the perfume of Persephone during her months spent underground with Hades. I have tried to wear it but I can’t, which isn’t to say I don’t admire its evocative power and strange beauty. I’m just a lighter type. I need air and oxygen (my favorite perfumes are vintage aldehydics, generally). But I have a decant of the vintage extrait and I think I’ll put a couple of drops on a handkerchief today and ponder all this. I hope you and Duncan are well. Spring is early here in the deep south U.S. The azaleas are coming into bloom. XX

    • Azaleas already? Wow. In Japan they come out a couple of weeks after the cherry blossom has been washed away by April rains.

      I am like you: I generally need light in my perfumes as well, but also like you I admire this particular combination of notes. It’s quite a stunning perfume in many ways.

      • Lilybelle

        Well, there’s just so much to admire, so much that is fascinating about this perfume, the the composition, the house, the culture of its era, the bottle, the box even, all the associations for over a hundred years. A perfumista should own a bottle just because. 🙂

  8. Had to go and dab on some Narcisse Noir extrait from my 20-year-old-or-so bottle. Haven’t worn it in ages because it’s the only NN I’ve got and I never want to run out. Stunning, as ever, and so fresh. Would love to get my paws on an older bottle if it could be in such good shape. Mine seems to have a definite slab of sandalwood underneath the narcissus and wondered if that made it a challenge for you.

    Thanks for reposting another brilliant piece. Love it all, especially the last sentence. Wow.

  9. This is so beautiful…..reading this in our current Sydney heatwave, you have given me chills! Thank you
    I cannot believe I have never seen this film or have tried any Caron perfume!!

    • I do believe that both situations should be rectified!

      The film, though, it is very much a question of personal taste. There is a very strident, forties, high-pitched Britishness to the way everyone speaks, quite contorted and over the top; the sets are so obviously sets; there is blackface, and histrionic music – but there is something genuinely magical and insane tying it all together that just really works for me. The perfume is equally old fashioned but it has something very compelling about it, almost morbidly erotic.

  10. What a great review and narrative! Love the way you have linked these two. Big thank you. R

  11. Thanks for reposting this, it is still a magnificent read. Love it!!

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