There are times when I reflect upon a fragrance to realise that it has been painted by the brush of a rampant personality, bigger than life, more enduring than the everyday routine. And those precious, troubling fragrances make it to my heart almost without my consent. Femme by Rochas , the glorious classic chypre, is one such fragrance, if only because I had learned a long time ago by a journalist friend that it was the signature scent of Melina Merkouri. Even Melina's name fits the rapport: it means "honeyed". I hadn't experienced this classic yet and when I did it was with this knowledge at the back of my mind.
Melina was a Greek actress and politician, famous from the cradle almost as she was the grand-daughter of a well-known mayor and the wife of acclaimed franco-american McCarthy "victim" director Jules Dassin. And her passionate campaign for the return of the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles to their birthplace assured a fond place in our hearts for her.
Those who have known her or even glimpsed a bit into her intense, passionate life and personality cannot forget her, even though it's been more than a decade she has been dead.
And although Femme was perhaps the first decisive foray into gourmand territory (by its creator's own admission: "very gourmande, very patiserrie") with its delectable fruity notes of succulent plum and peaches, it rested them on a bed of rather poignant amber and oakmoss base with powdery touches that suggested the hardship of the time it was conceived: World War II.
There is dryness alongside the initial lemony aldehydic spike and you'd be hard pressed to dissect individual notes, as the symphony unfolds on your skin.
Edmond Roudnitska used a methyl ionone compound he had smelled inside a forgotten barrel at a paint factory beside which he had been working during the rationed days of the war in 1944 Nazi-occupied Paris; this is when couturier Marchel Rochas came to him commisioning him a feminine scent for his beautiful young bride Helene.
And this is what gives Femme its sugarplum quality that contributed to its copious sensuality, of which a glimpse can be taken by looking at the curvaceous bottle originally encased in a lace-interlayed box.
A sensuality that Melina was not devoid of. In one of her most memorable films, Phaedra by Jules Dassin, she co-starred with Perfume Shrine's long-time favourite Anthony Perkins, as the wife of a tycoon who falls in love with her stepson, perpetuating the ancient Greek myth of Hippolytos and Phaedra...a tale of love and death, ερως και θανατος, like all Greek tales...
Here is a telling clip, with music by Mikis Theodorakis:
(uploaded by creepgreen)
There is a quality of intense drama in her persona, her tall lithe body moving with the grace of a feline but also the full tragic demeanour of a Hecuba or a Clytemnestra, coupled with sensitivity and what you feel is denied tenderness.
Her huge black eyes, burning coal embers under a handful of blond hair stare at you like cosmic lights.
The following clip from the 1949 staging of the play "A Streetcar named desire", in which she sings "Paper Moon" by Manos Hadjidakis, embodying Blanche DuBois, is testament to her power of penetrative gaze that sears through your soul much like Femme does to mine.
(uploaded by florentine7)
Here is an English translation of the song lyrics:
The sea shall bring birds
and the wind shall bring golden stars
that will caress your hair
and kiss your hand.
Paper moon, fake beach
If you believed in me a bit,
everything would be real.
Without your love
time goes by fast
Without your love
the world becomes more bitter
Femme was re-orchestrated in 1989 by Olivier Cresp, interlacing a daring cumin note of feminine sweat in spun sugar and lightening up somewhat the earthiness of the base. The new version is very likeable to me with its profound cinnamon oiliness and a little clove of fondant brandied compote and the louder drum bass of the very familiar dense ambery base of the 80s. Although the older version (circa 1960) is more ladylike and reserved, much like Melina was provocative in her personal life but without promiscuity in her public persona, the modern Eau de toilette is the real luscious bombshell with raunchy tendencies minus the retro feel, whereas the modern Eau de Parfum is more demure, if such a notion is applicable to Femme, and also less spicy.
Last but not least, for the delectation of our French (and Greek) speaking readers, here is a clip Melina made for the French TV, in which she accompanies the composer Manos Hadjidakis on a poignant song about the death of another era, the escape into dream and the inevitability of the end.
The way Femme elected to live in my dreams forever...
The song is called Kyr Antonis (=mister Anthony)(uploaded by Florentine7).
Notes for Femme:Top: Peach, Plum, berbamot, rosewood, lemon
Middle: jasmine, may rose, ylang ylang, orris, clove
Base: patchouli, musk, amber, civet, oakmoss, vanilla, benzoin, leather.