Perfume Review & Musings: Carnal Flower by Dominique Ropion for Frédéric Malle


Carnal the story goes, it nearly came to be named otherwise, but its French name equivalent, Fleur Charnelle would have sounded too much like Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle hence the resort to English. Another story, posted on Basenotes, which is also unverifiable and somewhat contradicts the first story, has it that CF was composed in honor of Candice Bergen, Frederic Malle's aunt, and in particular, in reference to her role in the movie Carnal Knowledge. Hmm, do you call this unfettered creativity as the EdP are supposed to leave complete creative freedom to their perfumers?

Stories, myths, and lore abound in the world of perfumery and this is what makes it what it is, secret, charming, magical, and for ever vacillating between fact and fiction. I have come to think that a folkloric study of perfume industry lore is in order. To paraphrase someone who said that perfume was emotion in liquid form, I would be tempted to say that perfume is myth in a liquid form...

I surmise that Frederic Malle is the nephew of Candice Bergen's husband, the late French director Louis Malle. The Editions des Parfums also obligingly volunteer to inform us that FM is no one else but the grand-son of Serge Heftler, the founder of the Christian Dior parfums. Good blood undeniably runs in the family.

But to go back to the jus....Dominique Ropion has created a fragrance which is a work of art; it is the closest to what one can perceive to be a structured musical piece in three movements. How does the perfumer manage to define such clarity, conceptual clarity that is, and embody it in a perfume? I'm mesmerized. Even more so because I discover with time, that for some mysterious reason, Carnal Flower always evokes for me a time that is dusk, that moment of the day when the daylight fades into the night while retaining some of its luminescence in an attenuated form. This happens repeatedly and therefore ends up rising to my consciousness: I am envisioning a walled garden at dusk and in it, a man, probably Dominique Ropion, is extending his arm toward me to help me progress and asking me to follow him down a path that leads to further darkness. However some lights appear, flickering above our heads as we walk by the dark silhouette of a tree left in the shadows. HOW does he do that? I do not have all the answers to that question but I have come to understand a few things about Carnal Flower.

First of all, it is simply masterful. It is beautiful, in an academic way and very much willed and intellectualized. You can sense the iron will of Dominique Ropion guiding you through the three main phases of the perfume. You are not left to day-dream, but are firmly taken by the hand and guided further into Domique Ropion's interpretation of a tuberose scent. The garden in which we are is walled because the tuberose in Carnal Flower belies its title and does not suggest any carnal excess, but on the contrary, civilization, sophistication, control, borders, limits, like the three movements of its development. It is a highly civilized tuberose. I will explain later why it is always dusk, then night time, interrupted by little golden-yellow lights in the sky.

One smells in the overture an outburst of freshness which evokes freshly cut, fibrous flower stems full of sap as if you were happily crushing a large bouquet of tall flowers (the tuberoses), that have been thrown on the ground for you to trample with unrestrained happiness and sensuality. The head notes are bergamot and eucalyptus contributing to an initial shouting out of verdancy - and also melon. I smell a ripe, fresh, green honeydew melon (on my third attempt, I finally detect that fruity note). Then, the second stage sets in and it is intriguingly spicy. The official notes are ylang-ylang, salicylates, and jasmine.

I have not found that accord identified as such elsewhere, but this spicy accord to me smells of.....turmeric, in all its glorious yellowness and spiciness and woodiness. Maybe you keep it in your cupboard. I checked with a little jar of it that I have at home and it matches. Maybe a little saffron too? Where did I put that saffron jar?

Turmeric by the way is also called Indian saffron. We thus find a very original contrast between tuberose and turmeric, unexpected at first, at least in the Western world, but not so if you think that both scents originate in India and may have empirically found their ways, in association, to Dominique Ropion's nostrils. Maybe an Indian lady or man was selling some turmeric-perfumed curry by the wall of a temple where tuberoses were made into garlands, or a religious ceremony was being held where the scents of both turmeric and tuberose were wafting by?

This reminds me of the infamous, supposed clash existing between the initial camphor note and the tuberose in Serge Lutens Tubéreuse criminelle. For me who has lived in both equatorial and tropical countries, I only see great harmony in this marriage as the camphor note reminds me of opulent camphor wood chests, and tuberose, of a tropical garden's scents wafting through the windows to caress them while blending with the subtle astringent and medicinal perfume of the chests, but I digress.

Then, the dry down; here we find tuberose absolute and orange blossom weaving their ways through subtle milky overtones brought about by the coconut absolute. This third stage incorporates the first two while settling in quietly on your skin under the calm action of warm musks. The last stage for me is the least provocative; it harmonizes rather than stands out on its own however it does develop some depth. The staying power is very good and the scent will last all day on you.

Now, for my little puzzle, how can one suggest dusk and night in a perfume? In this case, it is not because we think of tuberose as a night flower, no, that would be too intellectual - the trick here is contrast. There is such a sharp opposition between the greenness of the first moments, this explosion of plant life, that as it gradually mellows down we are led to perceive a movement from freshness = morning-coolness-in-the-dusk, the beginnings, sap, to spiciness = warming up, progression into the day-night, plants no longer in the foreground, but in the background and so at rest after a long day. Some have called that second stage solar; I find this to be all the more intriguing and intuitively correct as the yellow color of turmeric and saffron are considered solar colors, together with salicylates, which is the reason why they hold a cosmic and religious meaning in India and are used as dyes to color monks' robes. You see, this is why I was seeing little golden-yellow lights flickering in the night sky.

I do admire this perfume but it fails to win me over. I find it interesting and I love to sample it from time to tim but out of intellectual curiosity rather than sensual attraction. It is not round enough.

Finally, if you wish to sample a truly carnal tuberose, one that makes you think of danger and even decay, you should try Tuberosa d'Autumno by I Profumi di Firenze. L'Artisan Tubéreuse would be next on my list.

My thanks to makemepretty for sending me a generous sample of CF!

Photo is from Barney's.

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