The idea of la chamade floated wide in the Parisian psyche years before the Guerlain creation. Françoise Sagan (1935–2004), a French author best known for works revolving around the romantic lives of wealthy but disillusioned bourgeois characters, first published her novel “La chamade” in 1963. Set in high-society Paris in the mid-1960’s, the plot reads like an anti-fairy tale romance as the novel tells the story of Lucile, torn between Charles—twenty years her senior but rich enough to keep her comfortable—and Antoine, the more age-appropriate but broody young man she is attracted to. Classic Jane Austen romance would give Lucile a more determined heart, but alas, true to Sagan’s heroines she has a flighty soul:
“Life mostly made sense to me until I left my parents' home. I wanted to get a degree in Paris . But it was all a pipe dream. Ever since I've been looking everywhere for parents, in my lovers, in my friends, and it's all right with me to have nothing of my own—not any plans and not any worries. I like this kind of life, it's terrible but true.”*
Over the years Charles had a steady supply of mistresses at a salon he frequented, hosted by Claire. The arrangements would usually last a year or two, but Lucile turns out to be different as Charles doesn’t exactly have a trivial relationship with her:
What he couldn't say to Lucile was this: "All I care about is you. I spend hours and hours trying to fathom your psyche, I'm hounded by one single idea. And I, too, am frightened, just as you were saying, frightened of losing what I have. I, too, live in that perpetual state of despair and yearning you described."†Antoine, a typical French 'intellectual' romantic hero of film and fiction, is kept by an older woman as he falls for Lucile. Thus begins a delicate social dance: people within this small circle are all aware of this attraction, even be pushing them towards it, but Lucile and Antoine do try not to betray those who love them. As Lucile notes, Charles "might be able to accept my sleeping with Antoine, but not my laughing with him". She eventually gives passion a shot, but life in the garret doesn't suit her one bit; worse luck, she finds herself pregnant but unfit to be a mother. Lucile’s solution to life thus requires funds, leaving no choice but to return to Charles, still loving Antoine but no longer loved loving him...
The imperfect love story might pale in dramatic intensity compared to Sagan’s magnum opus “Bonjour Tristesse” (1954), but Catherine Deneuve eventually gave her blessing in 1968 as she starred in the cinematic adaptation, continuing her wardrobe collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent along the way. Now here’s that movie in its entirety, complete in its original dialogues: I couldn’t negotiate English subtitles so unfortunately some would have to read between the lines.
Thus what exactly is this French word chamade? Unfortunately there isn’t a comprehensive English equivalent to capture all of its French nuances. Sure, the English dictionary recognizes its antique military usage, denoting a distinct beat in battlefields that signals the surrender of the troops, most notably used during the Napoleonic age. (La chamade would have been played prominently when Napoleon lost the decisive battle of Waterloo .) Now not many people have actually heard of the actual drum beat so here’s an enriched sample below.
Yet the French also have another usage of the word, the expression un coeur qui bat la chamade, a double entendre to our wild heartbeats when surrendering to the latest object of affection. It is this second meaning that plays a huge influence to the Guerlain fragrance―but to be precise, all of the influences above have contributed to the character of this fragrance, which I shall explore in detail in Part 3.
Photo: Still from the film La Chamade (1968)