Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bitter, Bitte: Bandit

Germaine Cellier (1909–1976), unarguably the bitch goddess of modern perfumery, was beautiful, smart, indomitable and unapologetically direct in her approach to the olfactive experience. She sired (yes, sired) a quartet of masterpieces (Vent Vert, Fracas, Bandit and Jolie Madame) and a host of other perfumes which, while carrying the names of her collaborators, bore her smudge and smell. According to critic Chandler Burr, Cellier’s final result often flaunts the impassioned, unabashed features of, say, a de Kooning’s Woman. According to Victoria Frolova of Bois de Jasmin, she was “a creator ahead of her time, relying on short formulas to paint dazzling abstractions.” To me, a Cellier creation can range in resemblance from an early Schönberg like Verklarte Nacht to a late concerto by Lutoslawski, from moon-kissed verdure to picaresque in retrograde.

If Chanel No. 5 is Jazz Age modern, all star-upon-the-forehead coyness, Bandit is Modern Art, High Art, Difficult Art – the olfactive equivalent of Ayn Rand or Nathalie Sarraute. It does not show or flaunt; instead, it taunts and tempts and plays its quarry until coming within an inch of an edge, but an edge which only resembles an edge. In a strange reversal of roles – it was created in 1944 – it is, for me, a very Fascist perfume. (But, there again, we say such paradoxes live on. Wasn’t post-war Germany the best market for Dior’s New Look?)

Bandit is a perfume ripe for psychoanalysis or, better yet, shock therapy. It retires, like a rich person retiring to a “health farm” or like a Lowell retiring to MacDowell Colony, to write a book or carry on a type of tender, tortured affair with a younger woman deemed too beautiful for books and barbiturates. It understands that feelings, even potentially destructive ones, are to be heeded and that the drink you take before you fall may be the very best one of all.

I, for one, love its glove-compartment aura. Cracked leather gloves, a set of keys, a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes. It makes me think of a housewife turned into an accomplice, like Joan Bennett opposite James Mason in The Reckless Moment or Janet Leigh tormented by reefer-crazed dykes in Touch of Evil.

It’s a famously short formula with about 1% of isobutyl quinoline (or IBQ, as my friends call it) amped up with the very same galbanum that, three years later, Cellier would transform into her pastoral masterpiece Vent Vert. The middle notes are, at turns, indolic and spicy (jasmine, carnation absolute) and single-handedly responsible for the concept of some great later masculines like Dior Jules and Patou pour Homme. At this writing, it is still among the most astonishing, disturbing perfumes on the market and to miss it would be like going to Vegas to study the postmodern “architecture of spectacle” and missing the pirates at Treasure Island.

Image credit: 35mm color still from The Image (1975) by Radley Metzger


Blogger ScentScelf said...

The only one of the quartet I cannot yet wear is Fracas. The other three were keepers since I first met them. Interesting that Vent Vert, Bandit, Jolie Madame require being on skin for me to truly enjoy them, whereas OFF my skin is the only way I am comfortable sniffing Fracas.

December 10, 2008 at 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my!!! - you've just named three of the brightest stars in my firmament. Vent Vert had me at hello 20+ years ago, Fracas rules my perfume cabinet...and Bandit...well, that's for when I'm feeling grownup and sassy

Interestingly, it seems the more I explore niche perfumes the more I'm drawn by to my old classics.


December 10, 2008 at 8:46 PM  
Blogger carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

C., love, your fascist Bandit has Fitzgeraldian tendencies (thinking about the Swiss health home...). Brilliant piece of writing on one of my favorite perfumers (certainly the one I feel the most strongly about) and one of my favorite fragrances (ditto). I really shouldn't be saying this because I'll be losing auctions to other fans, but the vintage parfum is... well let's say it's one of those fragrances that can make me burst into a string of four-letter words, it's so amazing.

December 11, 2008 at 12:10 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

ScentSelf, Fracas is a difficult wear for me too; in fact, I have yet to find the man who can really pull it off. But on paper, yes, it is an odyssey.

December 11, 2008 at 7:51 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Musette, I'm happy we share some fixed stars, and, yes, the reason niche and vintage go hand-in-hand is because niche perfumery has grown out of very own sort of connoisseurship, for which a liberal study of the past is a must.

December 11, 2008 at 7:54 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

D., Your comment brings a smile to my face. Your blog is daily reading for me, and I simply love that a woman outside of New York can still break into a string of four-letter words!

December 11, 2008 at 7:57 AM  
Blogger Aimée L'Ondée said...

I do love Cellier's perfumes, and thank you for the lovely review. I wish wish wish I could smell anything but wet ashtray in the current Bandit. That's *another* one I'd love to find in vintage parfum, darnit!

December 12, 2008 at 7:00 AM  

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