– a review of Guerlain L’Heure de Nuit
Dear M. Wasser,
For all your indubitable charms, I suspect you do not have such an enviable job as we perfume writers with our twisted imaginations think. When I sniffed one of your latest creations, launched last year under a great deal of fanfare in a centennial year of very great importance, I remember I thought how difficult it must be to wrestle creatively with all the late, great and haunting ghosts of all the eminences fragrants Mssrs. Guerlain who came before you, to carry their work forward into a new era and new times and that relentless chase for new customers, new challenges, new perfumes.
Don’t get me wrong. You are yourself a rock star perfumer who counts many, many perfumes as your creations, not a few of which I own myself and am inordinately proud to waft behind me in my own quotidian and not at all glamorous life.
I’ve also got a bit of a crush, but don’t hold that against me…
So I understand something about your creative predicament. It’s a filthy job in a sordid business, but someone’s got to do it – bring the glories of Maison Guerlain into the twenty-first century, that is.
I’ve read – not having tried it, since it’s at least as scarce as real orris concrete in my part of the world – you pulled off that intimidating challenge with admirable èlan when you modernized one of the greatest Guerlains of all time, Shalimar, and called it Parfum Initial. I’ve read great things about it. I’m sure it’s good. With any luck, I might get to try it some day.
Then, Marketing socked it to you with this one. A modernization of another of the Great, the Grand, that unquestionable twentieth-century towering masterpiece that is L’Heure Bleue in time for its centenary celebration.
I felt your pain. Really, I did. That had to hurt. It must have felt a bit like recreating the Mona Lisa – in acrylic paint. On cardboard. With a palette of no more than ten colors, in this IFRA-compliant age.
Well, I can almost hear them whisper down the hall, let’s face the facts people…L’Heure Bleue is unquestionably titanic. It’s also difficult, demanding, strange, melancholy, musty, musky, and a tad…their whispers grow even more sotto voce, as if the ghost of Jacques Guerlain might appear at any moment in broad daylight in those hallowed halls at Levallois-Perret to smite them dead for emoting such heresy…démodée. But it is L’Heure Bleue.
Noblesse oblige, after all.
Alors. A stunningly beautiful presentation, that goes without saying. With an equally stunning price tag. Limited distribution of course, since everyone wants what is difficult to obtain. We’ll launch it in the Les Parisiennes collection, for that prerequisite je ne sais quoi touch that always heads like a Cruise missile straight for the most superheated spot on their Visas.
I wonder, though. Did you sigh heavily as you dragged out Jacques Guerlain’s original notebook and wonder why you thought this was a good idea? I wouldn’t blame you.
En avant. The juice. Did you fail at your mission, did you pull all the alchemical rabbits out of your hat, were you thrown over the intimidating fence of all that history and heritage?
Noblesse oblige. Of course you didn’t. This is why you’re Thierry Wasser and why this humble D-list perfume writer is writing about it.
L’Heure de Nuit (I’ll be getting back to that name) wears its history right on its lovely face, with a modern orange blossom twist, and what’s not to love about orange blossom? Those cherry-tinged, anisic, bitter-almond, sparkling facets of heliotrope and violet are all present and accounted for as indeed they must be in an homage, before the orange blossom boogies in on the scene with her friends iris, jasmine and a tinge of rose, but really, the heliotrope, iris and the orange blossom are the stars of the show, with all their charisma intact.
L’Heure de Nuit is nothing if not charming. Orange blossom gets me every time. And iris. I’m really big on iris. Iris adds a bit of the original’s timbre and depth to the blend with its sober restraint, and heaven knows it’s not at all easy to restrain an exuberant orange blossom once she’s in the mood for mischief and gangs up with jasmine and rose.
At the heart, I can begin to see where this is going. As a centennial tribute, you have somehow managed to pull off a coup d’état, as if to say this is a younger and far less serious age demanding a far less somber perfume. L’Heure de Nuit is far flirtier and not a little flightier, and therein lies the problem. It seems to mistake one-liners and quips for the erudite wit and intelligence of the original, and at this point, I’m feeling a bit… peeved.
M. Wasser, don’t get me wrong. It is indeed intelligent, but somewhere in my bottle, I hear a blonde – in several senses of the word – giggle. As if you had somehow managed to find a girl – my sorrow to say, L’Heure de Nuit is indeed a girl, as opposed to a woman – just smart enough to pick pointers on how to appear brainy without the tedium of actually having to bother with the real thing.
I’ll grant you this – you took that astonishing magical whiff of flour in the original and turned it into patisserie powder puff, essence absolute of dried, ground almond meringues. Less the staggering gateau Napoleon of the original – so fattening – and more one perfectly made, melt-in-your-mouth Ladurée macaron, just to say you’ve indulged…a little. A Barbie pink macaron, I should add.
At this point, I’m not so much peeved as thoroughly disappointed. If the maxim holds true that a perfume’s greatness to a large extent is determined in its drydown – which is but one of my own criteria – then here’s where you were thrown off that horse.
The original drydown of L’Heure Bleue is nothing short of haunting. Unforgettable. You simply can’t get it out of your mind. This is what men will remember the morning after, this is what they will associate with you, this is why they’ll grab the pillow you slept with when no one is looking and what they’ll bury their noses to catch, this is what will drive them to distraction for days…and nights. That drydown is why they’ll call you. Trust me. I know.
Yet this babe is gone in four hours, leaving nothing behind but a flat, rather one-dimensional impression of laundry detergent white musk – and not much else. A memory? Of course…something along the lines of ‘last night’s blonde’. Who looked an awful lot like last week’s, if blondes happen to be your thing.
L’Heure de Nuit is younger, brighter, much fresher and lighter than the original. In the same manner no woman of my age can possibly compete with the physical loveliness of youth, for one simple reason: we know too much of the world, its whims and wiles and ways.
In that sense, you succeeded – again. It’s perfectly lovely. The problem is, it doesn’t have much else than that light, that bright, that youth to recommend it. No experience, not enough depth or substance. Only a sugar daddy’s Visa so she can actually afford to buy it at that price.
Now, about that name. Please do attack whoever cooked up the name with an oversized bottle of castoreum tincture. There is nothing in the slightest ‘midnight’ or ‘nighttime’ about this heure. Like all the prettiest, youngest blondes, she blooms best in daylight.
And in daylight, she’s perfectly lovely.
The Alembicated Genie.
Notes: Heliotrope, violet, orange blossom, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, white musk.
With thanks to Ruth. Without whom.
Photo of L’Heure de Nuit via a favorite inspiration, The Non Blonde