Sycomore is one of my very, nearly, almost perfumes. In that, if I were to somehow receive a bottle as a present I would be quite thrilled, but I am simultaneously not ever quite thrilled enough to buy one (in Japan you can only get the three hundred dollar 200ml bottle, so that is simply never going to happen). I do want it though, someday. Definitely. And when I do I will probably get through it in no time as I did with my Tom Ford Grey Vetiver  and my Maître Parfumeur et Gantier’s  Racine (exquisite), and all vetiver perfumes generally.  I love them. I feel natural in them.





A refined, dense but very sinewy perfume that is all about vetiver from the start to the finish with its typically Jacques Polge excellence and long-lastingly quality Chanel architecture, Sycomore comes on to the skin fully realized, the vine-like vetiver central note encased in a subtle aldehyde and sandalwood papousse, a fine hint of violets, and the mulched, cool earth of the forest floor – with delicate undertone touches provided by myrtle and tobacco. If you have never smelled this lesser known perfume from the Chanel Exclusifs, however, it is possible that I am perhaps, as usual, poeticizing it (or trying to) a touch too much, because despite the perfume’s very wearable and dependable artistry, I do always feel, every time I smell it, that something is missing within the structure, that it is overly monothematic and needed some iris or some other flowers  à la Nº19, or else another note of more left-field eccentricity just to elevate it more imaginatively above the merely chic and ‘beautifully done’. The perfume is very nice, certainly, and one of the very best vetiver fragrances that you can buy, but for me it definitely does lack poetry.




Still, I was happy to reacquaint myself again with Sycomore the other night at the Chanel counter in Yokohama’s grand Takashimaya store, spraying myself liberally and wishing in fact at that moment that I had enough money to just plump for a bottle on the spot  (I do, also, I have to say,  incidentally, that love that name – Sycomore; so evocative for me, as those trees and the little helicopter seeds that come whirling down gently from above to the autumnal ground were something I was always fascinated by as a child, at my lovely little primary school back home  – Oak Cottage, a halcyon time in my education at that school surrounded by fields and trees and the perfect place for a boy like me to indulge in his fertile, strange imagination). Like oak trees and poplars, beech trees and all the beautiful deciduous trees in the parks and the countryside back in Ol’Blighty, sycamores having a very magical quality for me, the England in my DNA, the seasons.




Sycomore the perfume, however, has none of this youthful delicacy. For me, it is an impeccable, elegant, but also very urban perfume –  if still a tenuously pertinent scent, in theme and partially in execution, in its green and woody evocations of forest depths, for the film we were about to go and watch at the cinema, the Oscar-winning (and oh, how it went for those Oscars!) ‘The Revenant’ , starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy and directed by the Mexican master of miserabilism, Alejandro Iñnáritu. I am not usually a fan of this director’s work with the exceptions of Birdman and Amores Perros  (nihilism and despair are two things I am not really interested in), but I had heard good things about this latest film from some friends of mine, particularly about the innovative cinematography, and was precisely in the mood for being immersed in nature, in the iced landscapes of American and Argentina, in the uncontaminated purity of lakes and rivers and snow, and, after all the pink and camp effrontery of the recent shenanigans in Tokyo with our own  film making, just some air, some space, and some good old murderous revenge served ice cold.





You couldn’t really have a more malodorous film than The Revenant. You can see quite clearly that all the characters, from our shuttered, modernised viewpoint, stink. What is fascinating about watching it, beside the intrigue of the story, with its raw desperation and gruelling arduousness, the dazzling photography (the film was made entirely using natural light and it shows), and the piercingly beautiful soundtrack, is the visceral truth  that ultimately we really are just animals; beasts fighting for survival, dirty and stench-ridden to the point where we blend right back in with nature and where it doesn’t matter any more; and when the cover up and the lie – perfume, for instance – that intricate olfactory mask with which we adorn ourselves – is exposed as a strange kind of deluded frippery. Yes, we might smell beautiful in our chosen beloved perfumes on a daily basis, but how feral and rancid we would all start to smell in different circumstances, toiling rabidly in rank, soiled bear skins just to stay alive, feeding on raw bison liver and whatever scraps of meat we could get our hands on, as our foul, festering wounds from the bite of the bear reveal the organic rot of our own fragile flesh.






For me, as a man who is totally led by his senses, this fear of the wild pungence that we subconsciously know lurks always there within us was one thing that was intimately exposed in watching this quite masterfully rendered film (with Sycomore, as a contrast, always providing a mesmerisingly oppositional accompaniment). Based on the true story of a fur trapper who was savaged by a bear, betrayed by his fellow hunters and left for dead in the wilderness after witnessing his son being cruelly murdered, we watch a mauled, sick and bewildered individual crawl 200 miles through unchartered pristine terrain in vast, primal landscapes of iced rivers, mountains and wind-whipped dark green pine forests, drenched in freezing waters, always on the verge of shivering to death (as the actors and crew were in real life, apparently, always at the whim of their quixotic and  sadistic director), compelling and far-reaching to the eyes and the brain in its clear and awe-filled capturing of nature……..but the stench. The putridity. The clinging, great unwashedness. I could feel it. Like the bear that bites through his flesh and drools incapably over his face (a viscerally impactful scene that is nevertheless quite hard to watch as you quake in your cinema seat), the bear is just protecting its young, reacting on instinct, just as the character, Hugh Glass, is trying to protect his. Both creatures are ensconced in their condensed, unwashed odours, the smells that chemically come naturally from their heat producing bodies, as the trappers come across Glass –  helpless, bleeding and broken, almost crushed beneath the hulk of the huge wild bear that, stabbed and shot, has fallen down now into a crevasse on top of him, the man on the verge of death and oblivion. Against the back drop of all the ice, and the snow, and the howling, ferocious winds, and the constant unrelentingness of nature, you realize quite profoundly, then, that his crude, foul smells, his blood mingling with the bear’s, would just in fact, in these circumstances, be irrelevant, that they might even be a source of comfort: the warm moisture of self, of still breathing, of still being alive.


Filed under Flowers, Vetiver

15 responses to “SAVAGERY & CIVILIZATION: : SYCOMORE by CHANEL (2008)

  1. Sycomore was the very first Exclusif I ever bought, and still one I reach for often. The kicker for me was the wonderful Chanel SA at Nordstrom’s who described it as the scent of a campfire in the middle of a forest on a crystal clear winters night. That clinched the deal and I bought it on the spot, no regrets!

    • I can definitely see how that image could describe Sycomore, although with real camp fires and forests on the screen in front of me, the perfume did seem very city-like in comparison! It IS Chanel, after all.

  2. Zubeyde Erdem

    İt may sounds weird but I’m suddenly smelling some strong perfume scents for a few seconds in my room and then I check my perfume box to see if there is any leaking or open one but finding nothing…
    With your last three sentence I found myself in the forest ,putting myself into same situation. Is that the all the same end for me? If it was day time end there must be unknown wild flower smell which I would noticed suddenly although it was exist since the beginning of everything like coming out my wounds at some sharp ache moments.. for a few seconds not all the time..otherwise it could be unbearable..
    Or if it was night time the scene needs wet soil smell as for me 🙂
    I’m not sure anymore for what should I thank now ??! For making me wonder about that scent ? movie? or feeling how it would be just came back to life from that deep forest ??!

  3. Oh, my goodness. Just woke up to this and haven’t even had my breakfast – which may be just as well. You put me right there. Whew! That was, um, intense.

    I think I’ll go back to Oak Cottage this morning, Neil, if you don’t mind. What a lovely vision in my Anglophilic mind’s eye. Accompanied by generous imaginary application of Sycomore. You’ve described it impeccably, as always. I love this simple line about vetivers: “I feel natural in them.”

  4. OMG,, what a fabulous review! I own Sycamore and I completely agree with you…there is something floral definitely missing that would make it less austere.

    • Definitely austere, although that is probably one of its strengths. You know what I mean, though, it’s a bit like Ted Cruz, determined and unrelenting, even in the face of its own obvious lacks.

  5. Would it be sacrilege to wear Sycomore with a touch of No 19?

  6. What a fabulously evocative review, the fragrance and the film. You definitely have managed to capture that cool, reserved, truly urbane quality of the fragrance. I do agree with you that the scent needed another note or two to round it out. It has the coolness to it that would have benefitted greatly with the addition of a slight floral note, one that might have warmed it up a bit. But I think, as far a vetiver fragrances go, it truly delivers.
    Seeing that you enjoy vetiver so much, there is a scent you must try, if you are not already acquainted with it. It is Red Vetiver by Montale Paris. I had the pleasure of trying this while I was in Austin and it was just glorious. It really had a wonderful structure to it, but it also had a touch of warmth; which kept it from becoming too icicle-like. You will have to let me know if you are familiar with it.
    As far as the movie goes, you have given me enough of an impression that this is not the movie for me. I would rather be lost in hours worth of anime watching and escape reality. I do not want to be viewing anything that realistic. I like to escape reality as much as possible, that movie might be too graphic a glimpse of reality. But, you have masterfully conveyed the premise of it.

    • Thank you (and I love the sound of Red Vetiver! I know Montale are unfashionable but I love them, I love how STRONG their perfumes are. Unfortunately, EstNation in Tokyo doesn’t stock this one).

      As for anime and reality, well I also, obviously, am a total dreamer and that is reflected in the films I like best (I can’t stand anime, though – my eyes just reject it). Once in a while, however, I like to just almost go in the opposite direction of my instincts and let someone take me where they want to go, and The Revenant was quite a cathartic experience for me in a way – it had a real purity of intention about it and was really quite impactful. Trying to mix it in with Sycomore is in some ways a bit ridiculous, I suppose, but as I was watching, and smelling, I did find the immense gap between them quite philosophically fascinating.

  7. I will never see THE REVENANT – nor will I ever buy Chanel’s SYCOMORE ; but what you wrote about our human condition and our human smells will stay with me forever. The role of perfume as mask and a cultivator of the refined and the civilized may rule us and empower us and bring joy into our lives; but awareness of the other side of the coin gives your writing a depth and profundity that I find thrilling. Thank you so much!

    • I am glad you feel this way. This kind of post is a bit of a risk, in a way, as people may be repelled by it. But I don’t care – I have to write what I have to write, and I agree that the huge chasm between the two is immense – the genuine beauty of perfume (which, quite clearly, I love), but also how it is just a fantasy as well, that we really are just reeking flesh and blood.

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