One Thousand Scents

Friday, August 03, 2012

Plain and Simple: Annick Goutal Rose Absolue


Unless you have read a really complete edition of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" (such as Martin Gardner's indispensable "The Annotated Alice"), then you have never read the chapter called "A Wasp in a Wig". Presumed to be genuine, the chapter was cut by Lewis Carroll upon the urging of his illustrator, John Tenniel, who in a nice little turn of phrase said, "A wasp in a wig is altogether beyond the appliances of art." (It isn't, of course: Tenniel just didn't like the chapter and didn't want to illustrate it, for reasons that Gardner is happy to speculate upon.)

Annick Goutal's 1984 Rose Absolue supposedly consists of nothing but rose oils: Egyptian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Moroccan, Damascena, and Rose de Mai. This is presented as a selling point, but I think it's a problem. A composed perfume needs to have some structure: it can't just be a bunch of things mixed together, any more than music can just be a bunch of notes. Even a soliflore, a fragrance that is meant to smell like a single flower or bouquet, can't just be the smell of that one thing, for two reasons: first, the smell of a single thing, however lovely, becomes tedious over time, and second, an extracted oil never smells exactly like the real thing — it always undergoes some alteration in the process of extraction — and it needs some tinkering to make it smell as it ought to. It needs the appliances of art.

Roses unquestionably smell gorgeous, and there have been lots of rose soliflores throughout the years and decades. (Coco Chanel was responding to this, and making the case for her complex and wildly modern No. 5, when she said, "I like roses, and the smell of the rose is very beautiful, but I do not want a woman to smell like a rose.") But even soliflores still need that structure. Yves Rocher's unrelated 2006 Rose Absolue, for example, bolsters its barrage of roses with a little spice at the top and a little sweetened wood at the bottom, just enough to give it some development while still placing the rose front and centre. But Goutal's version, while it unquestionably has facets, is not enough. It's too simple. It's very pretty and rosy at first, and because the perfumer uses a number of different roses with varying aromatic qualities, there is a slight citrus quality to the scent at the beginning, and a powderiness later on. But the overall effect of all those roses with nothing to temper them is sourish and curdled. Instead of a sonata, it's two or three notes on the piano played over and over again, and after a while it becomes simply irritating.

I would like to suggest, based on the evidence of Goutal's Rose Absolue, that a true rose soliflore, one consisting of nothing but roses, is altogether beyond the appliances of the art of perfumery.

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