Shadow Play

–  a review of Montale ‘Boisé Vanillé’.

Have you ever noticed how your perceptions change in the dark? Somehow, everything except your sense of sight is heightened, sound and smell take on a new significance, and what you can see shapeshifts into other, more ominous things that almost seize a life of their own in the shadows that recede into the darkness. Even your thoughts morph into other forms and patterns, and what seems preposterous in daylight somehow makes far more sense in the witching hours after midnight. Those daytime stories of crystal-clear delineated form and logic fade to darkest gray like old Polaroids, and instead, the mind opens to myths and magic, to all the primeval elements that make us what we truly are and feed the dreams and stories we create, and so we grow, if only we will dare to look into that dark.

I think of all of these things, I think of that interplay of shadow and light, logic and dream, and I think of a perfume that somehow also exhales on the borders of light and shadow, its form shifting and changing into something otherwise and other ways unexpected, and that is another reason I love what I do – to meet the unusual and follow where it leads, even if it takes me further into the shadows. That perfume is Montale’s ‘Boisé Vanillé’, surely one of the most unique vanilla-themed perfumes I have ever encountered.

Until now, I have never tried any of Montale’s perfumes, kept away by other olfactory distractions and hesitant because of one note in particular that gave me serious pause for thought. Montale is a house known for its use of oud. With a few exceptions, oud and I do not get along well. That note of medicinal and apothecary puts me off in a bad way, unless it’s so seamlessly blended with other notes I hardly notice it’s there, or of such an extraordinary quality I can appreciate its other facets.

No oud smolders in ‘Boisé Vanille’, but ‘smolder’ is the operative word here…this is a perfume that pulses in the shadows, that changes and evolves, and is surely one of the moodiest perfumes I’ve ever had the privilege to sniff.

Vanilla, that glorious cured pod of a jungle orchid, can be interpreted in so many ways. From the cupcake ubiquitous of celebufumes and tweenie scents to the star player in the famous ‘Guerlainade’ of Guerlain, who used it to such stunning effect in Shalimar, or focused on the pod itself to effect no less stellar in Spiritueuse Double Vanille, or to Serge Lutens’ olfactory candied dream of Un Bois Vanillé – in all of them and countless more, vanilla lurks to evoke memories of childhood and a sweet-toothed comfort against the vicissitudes of life, or else to seduce with its likewise aphrodisiac pleasures. The scent of vanilla has been scientifically proven to heighten all other sensory impressions, something every perfumer knows who attempts to bottle seduction and succeeds.

‘Boisé Vanillé’ is not that kind of vanilla. This isn’t sweet in the slightest, has no associations with food or childhood comfort scents, and as I wrote before…it’s moody, shifting the ground and the expectations beneath your nose whenever you think you understand it to something else and otherwise and very, very different.

Many perfumes start out on a bright, soprano note of hello before they take you away on that magic carpet ride, but ‘Boisé Vanillé’ has other plans and another kind of ride in store. I read of notes like lemon, geranium, bergamot and lavender and conjure up luminous green, fougère ideas, but here, those ideas are subverted almost immediately by a darker heartbeat…cedar leaves, dark and smooth and bitter. A fiery tendril of allspice glows, intertwined with a patchouli so velvety plush and rich it pulses in the halflight that surrounds you, a suggestion of iris adding its own air of intrigue. This perfume is not short on intrigue.

Vanilla even I can detect above, below and throughout it all, but this vanilla is all base and all basso profondo, it chooses to show another earthier, woody face. If there were such a thing as vanilla machismo, I offer Boisé Vanillé as Exhibit A, although I think it should wear equally well on both sexes, so long as you have the attitude it seems to demand.

After a long, long while, as it leads you through its twilit dark, a magnificent tonka bean makes itself known. Combined with the basso profondo vanilla, the smouldering embers of allspice and that velvet-black patchouli, it evokes certain types of incense, yet no incense is listed, and that, too, is astonishing. Like all the Montales I’ve ever read of, it has the half-life and staying power of radioactive isotopes. When I wore it last, I could detect it quite clearly over twenty-four hours later, even after a bath and a shower.

I can imagine anything with the right kind of cattle prod and very slight provocation. Yet I could never imagine in my wildest, phantasmagorical dreams conjure such a thing as Gothic vanilla, Gothic in the sense of melodrama, of shape-shifting intrigue, of those tales of the Mahabharata enacted by the Wayang shadow puppeteers of Bali. Tales that shift the ground beneath the audience’s feet as they watch, when heros prove to be villains after all, and villains another kind of unexpected hero, changing loyalties and evolving in the dark beyond from light to black, playing out their archetypal tales that lurk in the shadows that make us all encounter what we truly are or dare to be.

Notes: Lemon, geranium, bergamot, lavender, cedar leaves, allspice, iris, patchouli, vanilla, tonka bean.

Montale is available in many locations online, including Luckyscent, and First in Fragrance.

A big, fat hug and thank you to the very devious Dee of Beauty on the Outside, who made this review possible and once again put me on the primrose path to perfumed perdition!

For other reviews of ‘Boisé Vanillé’, I highly recommend my Scent Twin Suzanne’s, and Dee’s, too.

Image of Balinese shadow puppets: Wayang2u

24 thoughts on “Shadow Play

  1. Sounds like a must try for me! I like the “strange ” vanillas.It takes an intelligent perfume (and perfumer) to utilize vanilla in a way that’s different from it’s ingrained gourmand and teen associations.Real vanilla is a multifaceted and complex scent.It has leathery,animalic,balsamic ,smoky,woody like amber,and even ancient medicinal aspects.It practically begs for a perfume in which it can unfold it’s wings it all it’s glory.Vanilla needs to evolve,it needs to breathe! It certainly sounds like Bois Vanille allows it to do just that.I can’t wait to try it.Have you tried Havana Vanille by L’Artisan Parfumeur? It’s another “strange” vanilla where the less common attributes are emphasized.It has a boozy rum like opening enhanced by orange and davana,and a spectacular drydown where the vanilla note is bolstered by tonka bean,immortelle(a favorite note of mine like in 1740 😉 and a gorgeous green hay like tobacco note of narcissus absolute.It’s one of my favorites and very strange indeed.

    1. I’ll freely confess that no, I haven’t yet had a chance to try L’Artisan’s Havana Vanille (one explanation being that I live in the Niche Empty Quarter of Europe). But strange is always good – which explains my love of Uncle Serge, for one.

      Vanillas can be done spectacularly well – DSH Vanille Botanique and Guerlain Spiritueuse Double Vanille, for example, or spectacularly bad…too many to mention!

      But if strange, offbeat, and intriguing are your thing, look no further for a vanilla ride you are not likely to forget any time soon! 😉

    2. And I forgot to say thanks for your amazing writing.Every review is a delectable journey for the senses.I loved your post on Amouage Memoir Man which I have and absolutely love

      1. Robert…go right ahead and make MY day! 😉 And to think…I began the first incarnation of this blog on the blithe assumption that if I could write about perfume I could write about anything! Famous last words…;)

        This may be an immodest thing to say, but of all my thousands and thousands of words in this past and incredible year, one of the reviews I’m proudest of writing out as a story is..Memoir Man. If you can believe it, it made ME cry…;)

  2. You’ve made me want to sniff all my fragrances in the dark now, I wonder if I would approach them differently?

    I’ve been looking for a good vanilla for a while, I have lots of fragrances that showcase vanilla but none that are really a ‘vanilla’ (if that makes sense). This one sounds so intriguing and I do enjoy Montale scents, I simply have to try it.

    Beautiful words as always.

    1. Thomas, darling, yes, you really should try it some time – sniff your Preciouses in the dark or with a blindfold…you might be surprised what you discover that way! 😉

      You will certainly be surprised by this Montale – I can promise you that!

  3. Gothic vanilla, that may be something new under the shadow of the sun, surely. Love the concept. This genre of unusual vanilla seems like the exactly perfect thing for the long dark days to come.

    1. Lucy…I kid you not…this really is a Gothic vanilla! (and no, we don’t meet those too often, do we?) Hunt it down and try it out – I promise – it will surprise you!

  4. I love Montale but I have intentionally avoided this one because sweet gourmands always rub me the wrong way. I have always presumed that this is one of those. Now you have changed this for good! This really sounds exactly like what I have been looking for to restore my interest in vanilla.

    I have another interesting way of revisiting known perfumes. Just let a friend or significant other rummage your wardrobe. Smelling a perfume on someone else without already having restricted your mind with your preconceived ideas of this is a unique experience, I always discover new things this way.

    1. I haven’t been all that great a fan of gourmands either, so I can understand you. Just make sure to park your expectations of anything ‘vanilla’ at the door – this Montale is NOT…one of those! 😉

      I have a thing about trying feminine perfumes on masculine skin – it never ceases to amaze me what a difference a chromosome can make! 😉 – or vice versa. I discover new things that way, too – and I’m lucky enough to get by with a LOT of help from my friends…;)

  5. Hooray! I am so glad that you like BV, and that it inspired such a response! I so rarely hear any buzz on this fragrance, and it deserves attention.

    It’s actually been a while since I wore it last— it does demand a certain attitude to pull off: I can imagine you wearing Boise Vanille in the same way I can imagine you sporting a tailored men’s tuxedo (with heels, of course)!

    1. Dee, you’re right – it does deserve more attention, but Montale is such a huge line, I can understand if it gets overlooked. Which is a shame, really, since it’s so, well…Gothic! 😉 I grabbed it as a ‘can’t decide what I want to wear, so I’ll just grab something… So glad I did!

      If I had something like, say, a classic YSL tux (his were always the best!), I would of course wear it with heels – and maybe even BV! ❤

  6. As Dee said, there is so little buzz about this fragrance, which puzzles me since perfumistas say they’re on the lookout for unusual and non-foody vanilla scents. This one is dark and elegant and brooding and soooo resinous and wonderful. I’m off to read Dee’s review, but before I do, want to thank you for paying such beautiful tribute to one of my favorite’s! That photo is just perfect.

  7. I’ll second the suggestion of Havana Vanille. It’s not your usual vanilla fragrance. It reminds me of a transparent, musky, eggnog.

    Most of the Montale “Aouds” contain very little of the oud note that you dislike, so you should try them. I particularly like their White Aoud.

  8. Two things can contribute to the fact that it remains under the radar. One, is obviously that it is not an oud. I believe Montale has many spectacular creations that don’t contain any oud and one rarely hears about them. And two is all the ridicule that the mere mention of Montale conjures in some perfumista circles.

    1. Ah, that infamous oud…as I said, so long as I’m not battered sideways by medicinal, I’m game for most things. I do worry about oud…it’s becoming increasingly rare as demand has sky-rocketed, and not all attempts of ‘farming’ it have been successful. So I suppose I’ve been bludgeoned to death by all those poor imitations…and surprised when I encountered real oud.

      I’d love to try lots more Montales, and it’s a great shame so many sneer at them – they’re not any more expensive that most niche lines, they’re – said on the basis of one experience! 😉 – incredibly well made, and ah, yes…those aluminum canisters! Seriously, what’s not to love about stylish elongated hand grenades that are unbreakable – much like the contents – and that you can leave out without worrying about sunlight?

      I’m beginning to realize something rather important since I’ve begun writing about perfume – I can’t afford to be a snob. It would mean missing out on something…extraordinary! No one knows where the next epiphany might be found!

      1. Not only they are not more expensive but if one takes into account longevity and sillage they are a bargain. And I cannot believe they are made of cheap ingredients. Where does all this depth and development come from then?

      2. No worries, my friend! It leaves more for the rest of us – and yes, in the “bang for the buck” department – sillage, longevity, complexity – Montale certainly delivers! Some people just refuse to learn how much they’re missing.

        Plus a change…;)

  9. “Moody” but not “oudy” sounds like a good combo to me, ditto the superlative phrase “Gothic vanilla” which others have picked up on. If the lavender isn’t too troublesome, I’m in. I have a bottle of Eau Duelle which is a bit of an offbeat vanilla – two vanillas indeed – with incense. As vanilla is my favourite note (and an erstwhile nickname!), I would like to try this for sure. Like you, I have tended to give Montale a bit of a wide berth on account of its oud-heavy offering.

    1. Vanessa, please don’t order a sample of this because I’m going to send you some. (I’m also going to state right up front that I don’t think you’re going to like it, as your tastes are much more lady-like and refined than mine, but by the same token, one never knows, right?) I’ve been scratching my head over what to send you ever since you said to hold off on the Antonia, so kindly allow me, and if there’s anything else you’d like, flip me a note. I still have your mailing address, btw, so we’re good there. 🙂

    2. Well, Vanessa, knowing something about your tastes, I’ll have to say…just be prepared for a very, very dark, woody vanilla, but I definitely think you should try it! And indeed, thanks to Suzanne, I dare say you will! 🙂

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