Magie Noire (Lancôme)

I thought to continue the previous post's theme of sorcery with a review of Lancôme's Magie Noire. The review remains, but the theme has faded with the weekend, supplanted by something much closer to hand, and more solid to hold: a book. It isn't often that a fictional character summons to mind a certain perfume so clearly -- or vice versa -- but as this is a special case, I hope you will indulge me the comparison.

The first time Michel Faber presents us with Sugar, the heroine of his Victorian Gothic novel The Crimson Petal and The White, we are asked to imagine "the queasy surprise of seeing what appears to be a tall, gaunt boy wreathed from neck to ankle in women's clothes; then, with the first glimpse of this odd creature's face, the realisation that this boy is female."

Faber continues: one has hair quite as golden-orange as Sugar's or skin quite as luminously pale. Her eyes alone, even if she were wrapped up like an Arabian odalisque with nothing else showing, would be enough to declare her sex. They are naked eyes, fringed with soft hair, glistening like peeled fruits. They are eyes that promise everything (pp. 27-28).
And so they should, for Sugar is a prostitute-- one so disciplined to please her customers that even other prostitutes stand in awe of her.

Yet behind her loveliness, Sugar keeps secrets. One is a fierce morality given to expressing itself in lurid jeremiads scribbled at dawn on reams of hoarded paper. The other is ichthyosis, a genetic skin disorder manifesting as red welt-like stripes which paint Sugar's limbs and torso like the flames of hell itself. The former she hides in her writing table, bringing it out only when alone. The latter she hides under the elaborate fashions of the day-- and Sugar doesn't take off her clothes for just anyone.

On the night that Sugar is introduced to William Rackham -- self-pitying heir to the Rackham Perfumeries fortune -- she is wearing her favorite dress of moss-green peau de soie, intricately bustled and draped. Unfortunately, a violent downpour catches her en route to the rendezvous. When she arrives, her rain-drenched dress appears as black and slick as a selkie's skin. As it dries, it emits "a subtle haze of steam" which surrounds her and her quarry like a veil of enchantment.  Within its intimate confines, William discovers that Sugar smells of rain and -- even more exciting -- fresh female sweat. To his nose, she smells "divine". By the end of the evening, no other perfume will do.

Weeks later, when William has installed her in a secluded house that may as well be an anchorite's cell for all the hours she will spend there alone and idle, Sugar (soon to be a neglected mistress rather than a favorite whore) discovers ominous dustings of mildew in all the folds of her favorite green dress-- a memento of the night she met her fate, and a portent of the days of regret yet to come.

Austerity and ambivalence sit uneasily by the side of ripe and youthful beauty-- or do they? Darkness makes a beam of light seem brighter, purer, more fine-- and so it is with Lancôme's Magie Noire. Severe and sweet, dry and juicy at once, like ripe berries dredged in confectioner's sugar-- or is that powdered arsenic? You can't know until you taste for yourself... if you've courage enough.

Magie Noire (1978) and Missoni Original (1982) share a common formula: cassis, raspberry, honey, hyacinth, civet, oakmoss, patchouli. Together, these make a mighty wall of scent to scale, but while Missoni walks the light and fresh side of the line, Magie Noire topples resolutely into the velvet boudoir that lies beyond the pale. Plainly put, this baby reeks of sex. In concentration, blackcurrant bud and leaf accords have been noted to possess an ammoniac quality which, combined with the odd-yet-unmistakable urinous aspects of both civet and honey, guarantees that the olfactory nerve is in for a pheromonal walloping. Luckily, the beat-down is more Sacher-Masoch than Marquess of Queensbury Rules... and you've been very, very naughty, haven't you?

There seems to be a climatological distinction between the two fragrances, as well. While Missoni seems poised for hot weather in its gauzy veil of aldehydes, Magie Noire -- with its additional layer of animalic castoreum -- is almost a winter version of the basic accord. It is easy to imagine this perfume to be overwhelming in summer heat, too stark for the light of day-- but at night, when its lush and full-figured outline blurs and dissolves into merciful shadow, Magie Noire becomes a thing of grace.

And yet, there remains to Magie Noire a sharpness, a dryness, an intimation of concealed wit in opposition to all this lush greenery on display.  This more than anything calls Sugar to mind.  The world sees of her only what she wishes for it to see.  She saves all her keen intelligence for her own inner communion, sitting at her escritoire in the hours between gay night and lonely morning, pouring her true self out in black ink onto the most spotless white page that dirty money can buy.

Scent Elements: Cassis, bergamot, hyacinth, raspberry, galbanum, honey, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, tuberose, narcissus, iris, rose, patchouli, vetiver, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk