Frédéric Malle En Passant, 2000

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En Passant is a consummately springtime scent. It balances a cool, aquatic heart with soil-like accents to recreate the tension at the center of a spring bloom. Like most spring flowes, lilacs smell brisk and vivid but the appearance of youthful purity is a red herring. Lilac’s crispness doesn’t quite disguise the oily sultriness that gives lilac a florid, almost gaudy character. Lilac’s scientific name captures the tone with campy precision: Syringa vulgaris.

I’ve seen En Passant described as muted and pastel, euphemisms used to describe vague, washed-out fragrances, but there’s too much shadow and undertow in En Passant for it to be considered bloodless. Giacobetti might play with simplicity but she doesn’t settle for it. The perfume is padded precisely where it needs to be. The composition’s straightforward design reflects the lightheartedness of the season but the lack of ornamentation is hardly guileless and points out Giacobetti’s remarkable talent for nuance. Like many of her perfumes, En Passant becomes more detailed the closer you look.

A lot has been made of the perfume’s cucumber and wheat notes, how they modulate the central floral accord and keep it from becoming too sweet, too simple. It’s true that the accord is unexpected. And it’s remarkably effective in creating the detail that lets the perfume simultaneously portray a single flower and an entire season. But embedded in the accord like a drop of ink in paper is a waxy/nutty, almost tactile facet. It widens the central floral sketch and gives the perfume’s trail weight and momentum.

Depending on whom you talk with En Passant is either an essay on rain, a sort of modern descendant of Après l’Ondée, or a lilac soliflor. Impressionism or representation. Visual art terms only have ballpark accuracy when applied to perfume.

Representation is tricky and the assumption that recreating ‘nature’ is perfume’s highest modality is still widespread. Giacobetti, like Roudnitska before her, challenged the premise. His answer to the question of how perfume relates to nature was to compose a detailed muguet soliflor still life. From her fig perfumes for Diptyque and l’Artisan Parfumeur to her carrots, irises and roses Giacobetti offers a succession of solutions to Roudnitska’s question, as if to imply that there are at least as many explanations as there are subjects. With En Passant, she creates a faithful lilac soliflor at the same time that she offers a more upbeat vision of a rainy day than Jacques Guerlain’s. It’s a fantastic accomplishment for a seemingly simple lilac soliflor.


(image, Nina Simone in Central Park performing Lilac Wine)

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