Sunday, October 21, 2007

Femme by Rochas: fragrance review and associations

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.

Pics of Femme ads courtesy of parfumdepub


  1. I've loved Merkouri since I was a girl... WHAT a woman.WHAT a voice.

    Femme was my next perfume buy, after Mitsouko, when I was a pre-teen.
    [Even then , my money went to perfume...
    At least, I'm consistent!]

  2. That's amazing! I didn't know you even knew her, but of course with your sensibilities...what am I talking about!
    Incredible passion she had, didn't she? *sigh*

    You had amazing taste for as pre-teen!! I can only claim perfume taste as a teenager; my pre-teen age is full of discarded smelly experiments of ruining my mother's perfumes by mixing them up. She had a handful!! LOL!

  3. Anonymous07:06

    Lovely review of Femme, and such a wonderful tribute to Melina, I always thought she was really something else. When I was younger I used to have a record (yes, on vinyl, children) with the love theme from Phaedra on it - I played it over and over, and I loved all her films. I am not in the least surprised that she wore Femme.

  4. Thank you Flora, it's lovely to see people know her and appreciate the tribute.
    Oh, I have vinyls as well (and guard them close to my heart). The love theme from Phaedra is one of my favourites (so wonderful), will post it in the future perhaps.

  5. Anonymous15:48

    Good morning,
    i just bought a bottle of FEMME, i do not know if vintage or post 1989 thought. The cap is white, bakelite?

    My mother talked about Melina Merkouri a few time; i can recall her admiration. I am listening to the song with Mano Hadidakis & am tempted in buying PHAEDRA the film.
    Regards, Violaine

  6. V,

    I think you might have acquired a pre-reformulation one. The reformulated ones are black, although I have seen mentions of the difference in the cap being edt vs.edp. What's yours?

    Melina was something else, really. Such passion! Do get Phaedra, you won't regret it, it's a wonderful film (it takes the concept of the Greek tragedy and transports it to today ~well, the 60s when it was filmed). And the music is...well, amazing and haunting. :-)

  7. Hello!
    Thank you for taking the time to answer back to my inquiries & discoveries. It is a quality I have yet to cultivate.
    The Femme flacon is Eau de Toilette. The liquid seems slighty darkened by age but i chose to buy it anyway.

    I am making a list of greek music & films your reference on your blog. Si si! I have so much to learn & life is so short. Greek mythology is rich, immensely dense of symbols, tragedy and humour too. of archetypes to understand oneself as well ;)

  8. V,

    awww :-)

    The vintage juice is often darkened and sometimes the top notes (and sometimes the heart notes too, sadly) are "bruised" but I guess it's always a calculated risk.

    Glad I am providing you with a gateway to Greek culture, it's something I really enjoy doing you know!! And yes, you put it perfectly, Jungian archetypes are often referenced in classical mythology, very true.
    So you will indulge me into adding more Greek trivia along the way. :-)


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