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.
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.
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.