samedi 9 août 2008

Hypnotic Poison, Toxic Sweet

This story could start like a fairy tale. Once upon a time, a blogger went into Sephora to buy mascara, and was caught by a summer storm. As she walked along the aisles, perusing fragrances she never paid attention to because they seemed too common, too popular to her, her gaze was attracted by a candied-apple bottle. She held out her hand, sprayed her wrist as though in a trance, smelled… and her prejudices were swept away.

It could also start by some stats: of the five fragrances of the Poison franchise, the only sales that went up in 2007/2008 were those of Hypnotic Poison and Midnight Poison. For the latter, it makes sense: it’s just been launched, and lavishly, with a film by Wong Kar Wai. But the former is ten years old and it’s selling better all the time.

Why? Simply because it’s very good. And because it perfectly expresses, in its very composition – perhaps subconsciously – the concept of poison…

The fragrance of absolute risk

The launching of the first Poison in 1985 was a masterstroke. The bottle, the juice, the name, went one better than the then eight-year-old Opium. Dior hadn’t launched a feminine fragrance since Dioressence in 1979: for the first time, it broke with the tradition by not naming it after a variation on the name of Dior; ever since the resounding failure of Dior-Dior in 1976, Edmond Roudnitska was no longer the house’s perfumer.

The heavy-weight spicy floral – Luca Turin compares it to a Sherman tank – bore its name well, with a sillage that was nearly toxic in its intensity. Let’s face it: it may well be because of Poison and its ilk, from Giorgio Beverly Hills (1982) to Angel (1992) and Amarige (1995) that several organisations, establishment and even cities like Halifax, Canada, have clamoured for the prohibition of fragrance, accused of being literally toxic.

Not that Édouard Fléchier’s composition, chosen from 780 proposals according to Michael Edwards, wasn’t beautiful: but it displayed unheard-of aggressiveness in overdose. This was its designer Maurice Roger’s intention: an “absolute risk”, based on the concept of “love, seduction and death”.

The very shape of the bottle fitted the concept perfectly: for Roger, it had to be an apple. The apple of Eve, which precipitates humanity out of the garden of Eden and into mortality; the poisoned apple given to Snow White by her evil stepmother, which plunges her into a death-like sleep (and which, according to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, is the symbol of accession to an adult sexuality)…

Snow White’s apple in a bottle

Strangely, while researching Hypnotic Poison, I stumbled on a post by Scent Signals in which the author says that the fragrance sends her into a deep, peaceful sleep…

When she composed Hypnotic Poison, did Annick Ménardo think about the implications of the name? It is quite possible that she worked on a submission without knowing the client, but I’d like to think that she knew quite well what she was doing when she showcased the almond note. The fragrant almond, so milky in its vanilla bath, so embracing, so reminiscent of childhood sweets, marzipan and sweet almond oil (now we’re in Hansel and Gretel…).

Now, what is almond?

Extract the odorant principal of the bitter almond – that of the apricot or peach kernel or the apple seed – and you will obtain a substance called mandelonitrile or amygdalin. In water, this substance decomposes into benzaldehyde and… cyanide[1]. Which, as any reader of classic English murder mysteries knows, is recognizable because it smells of almonds.

A toxic sweet

Hypnotic Poison literally smells of poison disguised as a delicacy – it might not be by chance that its bottle is as red as Snow-White’s apple. Its pernicious nature is betrayed by the slight bitterness, underlined by a touch of anisic caraway, rising from the powdery cloud of heliotropin (L’Heure Bleue’s main note). The metallic tinge of the musky base (some synthetic musks have a metallic facet) adds to this vague impression of toxicity. Sambac jasmine (the type used to perfume Chinese tea) adds a raspy, caster sugar quality to the blend, while trailing a hint of corrupt-smelling indoles…

Many commentators (like Minette of Scent Signals and Victoria of Bois de Jasmin) have remarked on the embracing, comforting feel of Hypnotic Poison – which is exactly why it's so perverse. It lulls you to sleep while speaking to your subconscious.

Next episode: Hypnotic Poison Elixir

Hypnotic Poison’s enduring success has, of course, been noticed by Dior, who is now planning the launch of a Hypnotic Poison Elixir in October or November 2008. However, Annick Ménardo’s formula will be tweaked by François Demachy, Jacques Polge’s former assistant at Chanel, and since 2007, in charge of olfactory development for LVMH. An anise note will be added to the blend – which may remind one of another of Annick Ménardo’s gourmand best-sellers, laced with vanilla and heliotropin, launched a year before Hypnotic Poison, and also in an apple-shaped bottle…

Guess which?

Image: From Walt Disney’s Snow-White and the Seven Dwarves. As if you didn’t know.

[1] Actually, strictly speaking, the cyanide used in poisoning is potassium cyanide, KCN, whereas the product of the decomposition of mandelonitrile is hydrogen cyanide, HCN.

22 commentaires:

  1. Oh, I do love the twists and turns of your tale...the olfactory, the chemical, the concrete, the poetic...they appeal to my various interests until...well...I find myself with an undertone in my consciousness..."remember to try Hypnotic Poison"...


    On another note, I would like to mention how much I enjoy the illustrations you choose, and I engage in a little mental gymnastics each time, trying to decide why you assigned the one to the English text and the other to the French...

  2. Thank you so much, ScentSelf! About the illustrations, they're a b*tch to find -- it takes me almost as long as to write the post. If you do find out why I choose differently for the French and English post, tell me... I pretty much do it instinctively (or haphazardly)! Unless my subconscious is at work...

    And *do* try Hypnotic Poison. It's got an odd and twisted appeal hidden under its obvious charms.

  3. Oh, I'm loving your review, D! Am chuckling at the image of Menardo as a villain from an A. Christie whodunnit. But what a villain, eh? HP is one of the fragrances whose sillage invariably makes my head turn in the street, as if I were a puppet on a string, looking not for the wearer but for that almost visible cloud of sweet toxicity. Strangely, the wearer(ess?) usually turns out to be a blonde. Now if only I could get my (blonde) girlfriend to wear HP for me - she likes it alright but thinks it's much too potent and sweet :(
    And hey, thanks for clarifing the source of the rasping caster-sugar effect. Rather than sambac jasmine, I've always put it down to caraway.
    P.S. Not holding my breath about the Elixir but it has my interest piqued nonetheless. And, between Lolita and HP I prefer the latter ;-)
    P.P.S. As you know, I've been away on holiday (Corfu is beautiful, was loath to come back) but I'm catching up on your posts. The El Attarine review is simply put dee-licious! :)

  4. You have just given me a wonderful lunchtime task: to go and re-test HP and read your wonderful review once again. Thanks ! I am a BIG Menardo fan, but not so much of her LLs.

  5. Dusan, what a shame about your girlfiend not giving in to your scented desires... But it's nice to have you back, you lucky dog (Corfu... sigh...)
    Someday, I hope to ask Ms. Ménardo if she knew what she was doing.
    Bises back to you!

  6. Silvia, I'm not much of a fan of the LLs either, but that could be put down to the fact that I smelled them so much on people here in Paris.
    Hope you report back when you've re-sniffed HP! I'd have never given it a second thought if I hadn't been caught in the storm...

  7. Got tied up at lunchtime but went to test HP after work and... what an interesting scent. Although very different, it has some of the unsettling element of Bulgari Black, yet it is comforting at the same time. This is a fragrance that I want to keep trying and I suspect it will keep growing on me like my fav Menardo's (Bois d'Armenie, Patch 24 and Black) have.

  8. Silvia, I agree this is a sneaky one. I'm also a great Ménardo fan, and Bulgari Black is one of my all-time favourite.

  9. Lots of fun to read-
    And to wear.

    Soft toxin.

  10. I unfortunately get a plastic note from both Hypnotic Poison and Bulgari Black... not sure what that is, but it rather ruins the "spell" for me. The Hypnotic Poison Elixir sounds good though - love LL.

  11. Thanks I. But I suspect it could be addictive.

  12. That's a shame, Tara. I really don't see what that plastic note could be, I don't pick it up at all. Could it be the infamous heliotrope-play-doh note?

  13. Not often I think of Roald Dahl's macabre tale, 'The Landlady', but you did it this morning while the pup sleeps...

  14. As usual, D, you have examined this from all sides :-)

    I recall getting a comment by Jean Claude Ellena that those "comfort" smells of the late 90s had a psychological regression to childhood effect for many women, which is interesting to ponder on. Their emergence in a time when women were retreating to a more sedate mode, witnessing a minor baby boom and less career-climbing, is not coincidental in my mind.

    The apple symbolism is of course not to be missed and treated in different permutations in many fragrances(compare and contrast with the "fresh" yet slightly provocative feel of the DK Be Delicious ads, the old Nina Ricci Fille d'Eve or the All about Eve from Joop)
    Hypnotic Poison also has a difference between concentrations, with the EDP being more assertively bitter (it had ruined watching a theatrical performance for me!), while the EDT is more airy yet still round and mighty.

    While I was writing my Absinthe/Anise/Wormwood series I revisited Lolita Lempicka in depth and came to realise that it acts as a bridge in Menardo's work between the more vanillic Black and Shalimar Light and the more cough-suryp almond of Hypnotic Poison, all of which followed LL: in a way it was a fragrance full of spermatic ideas!

    I highly recommend her Lolita au Masculin which I find more wearable than the feminine counterpart which is rather too sweet for me personally.

  15. I believe this to be one of the best fragrances of all time. At least of my time. It is incredibly mysterious and comforting all at oncen And for me, that's what draws me to it. It's like having sex with a very familiar partner but in a very unusal, public place... very dangerous yet you feel safe in their arms. I am very drawn to the yin and yang aspect of life and this fragrance executes that theme very well. As an aside, I cannot wear this fragrance aroud my husband unless I want to be devoured. He says it's not the best smell out there but it's definitly the sexiest;-)

  16. Hi Helg! Thanks for the detailed comments. There is definitely a sociological trend in this advent of dessert-like fragrance, and I think it isn't only ascribable to the retreat of women back into their homes -- this phenomenon in itself may be linked to a general feeling of insecurity, lack of identity when faced with the overwhelming choices of post-modern life... But this would need several essays to analyze properly!
    You do well to mention the concentration: my review bears on the eau de toilette.

  17. Anonymous, I have yet to test the powers of Hypnotic Poison on the opposite sex, but if it's like you say, I should buy gallons! I definitely get that vibe you describe about the "familiar yet dangerous" with HP: love your simile!

  18. Lee (sorry I'm answering in disorder, I'm doing this from a cybercafé in Provence, how cool does that sound?), you know, I actually did think of that tale while writing it. I often use Roald Dahl's stories with with adult English language students, he's so limpid...

  19. A great review of a fragrance I like very much! And so grateful to Helg (and you) for pointing out the EDT/EDP variation ... I have I think tried both without realizing it and could not account for the fact that sometimes it seemed bitter. This must be one of the relatively few cases where the EDT is the better choice.

    LL I LOATHED. And then I resmelled it recently and realized to my shock that I rather liked it, although I am still not sure I would wear it. Definitely now need to smell the masculine.

  20. I love your reviews, I learn a lot from them! Unfortunately, I can't seem to get to like Hypnotic Poison. I tried it again and had to wash my wrist as it made me sick. I know I could never wear it. And it's so bad as I really like Bois d'Argent and Black. Well, you can't have everything!

  21. March, while researching HP I didn't find that many blog reviews for it... and now aficionados are coming out of the woodwork! I don't like LL either... at least I think I don't. Maybe, like you, I'll change my mind. When I get back to the city I'll re-test!

  22. Jane, I have my nausea-inducing masterpieces too... I'm even afraid of naming them, lest I get struck by lightting!