Friday, 10 December 2010

Review: Portrait Of A Lady from Editions De Parfums Frederic Malle (2010)

Call me a pessimist, but I'm always suspicious of anything to which I take an instant liking. 'It can't really be as wonderful as it seems,' I tell myself. 'Where are the chinks, the flaws, the weaknesses?' More often than not, I succeed in finding them, but then we often see what we're determined to see. However, on some occasions, I do manage to ride the initial wave of euphoria and just allow myself to get carried away into unadulterated enjoyment.

When I first tried Dominique Ropion's Portrait Of A Lady for Malle, I was utterly bowled over. I saw a massive, Middle Eastern rose shimmering before me - not unlike Montale's Black Aoud - and my heart was captured. Since then, I've been trying to poke holes in its petals with my critical daggers, but I'm pleased to say that I have had very little success. Some might find it a touch too linear, but I'd suggest that its subtle, unobtrusive development is a testament to Ropion's brilliance. At first, it does appear to present nothing but rose, rose and more rose, but a closer inspection reveals several other aspects worthy of appreciation, not least a warm cinnamon at the start, a note-perfect, ecclesiastical frankincense in the middle and a smooth, oud-inflected, musky-patchouli woodiness in the base. Others may complain that the drydown goes on for far too long, but this would just be nit-picking. A few people might even raise objections about the irrelevance of the Henry James reference, and they may well have a point, but if you're going to start playing the lit crit game with perfume, then it would be equally easy to read the name as Malle's ironic assertion that the modern Isabel Archer wears an abaya and lives in Abu Dhabi (as has been suggested elsewhere).

Silence the naysayers. Whether you're a man or a woman, try this astonishing new release and let yourself be transported to an empty church in a country where Christianity and Arabic culture happily exist side by side, a place like, say, Lebanon or Syria. The outside world is locked away behind heavy doors. The lights are low. The silence is complete. You sit down and see a polished, brass censer hanging from the ceiling. Emerging from the holes in its lid is a heavy, scarlet smoke, cascading to the ground like endless ribbons of iridescent fabric. Close your eyes and just wait. Before too long, you'll be enveloped by the magic and completely trapped in its heady, floral spell.

[Review based on a sample obtained in 2010; fragrance tested on skin.]



  1. I feel like I am in the same boat as you... I tend to mistrust initial impressions. I was spritzed with Portrait of a Lady about three weeks ago, and had a very positive reaction. It was still unavailable here (Chicago) until Monday this week. The whole time I was obsessed with smelling it again. Yesterday I went and bought a bottle of it.... then I, like you, kept trying to spot the flaws. Then I started reading the negative reviews.... Now... was there too much rose? Did it last TOO long? Nope.. it smells fantastic on me....

    Great review....! You captured the experience perfectly.

  2. I will get a sample of Portrait of a Lady. I have tried three fragrances, my favourite being Musk Ravageur. I don't know but I feel Portrait of a Lady will conjure me up lots of feelings.

    Thanks for the review!

  3. Thanks for the review, Persolaise. I really think you should look into getting a regular column in a paper or magazine - something like The Independent, maybe; your articles are making me think about perfume on a different level, introducing me to names I'd never heard of, and tempting me to try several scents when I had no intention of buying anything new. Kudos for the eye-openers.

  4. Furriner, thanks very much indeed. We're too cynical sometimes, aren't we? I'm glad you liked the fragrance too.

  5. Vintage Lady, I love Musc Ravageur too... and Geranium Pour Monsieur and Carnal Flower and Une Rose and Iris Poudre and and and... I think all of them, as a range, are quite wonderful.

  6. Sue Donim, thanks for taking the time to write such a touching comment. Let us know which perfumes you've been moved to try.

  7. Hi Persolaise, thanks for your insights on "The Lady". I've been pondering on this perfume for over a week now, trying to parse its hoodoo. It's certainly an oriental rose, but my experience with it is that the rose shows up in the long shadow of the sillage, rather than upfront in an Une Rose style. I am kerrrraaaaaazzzeeee about this one. I love how it takes typically bombastic notes: rose, oud, patchouli, and makes them gossimer-like.

  8. Persolaise, nice review, as always. I have to admit that I am not as crazy about this one as I have been with others in the line, in particular Une Rose. Not that I wanted or expected the two to be the same. This reminds me a lot of one of the perfumes in the Juliette Has a Gun line (is it Lady Vengeance?) with a similar Rose, Patch and musk combo. I've read that this contains Ambroxan, which lends astonishing longevity to a perfume, and I can vouch for that with Portrait of a Lady - it does wear for what seems an age. I can also vouch for an oud-like effect as well. My wife smelled this on me last week and recoiled (she doesn't like oud) and said: "you're wearing one of your bloody middle-eastern perfumes again, aren't you?" Bless her...

  9. Katie, first of all, thanks very much indeed for stopping by.

    I think you're absolutely right about the perfume's sillage, but I haven't really experienced much of the "long shadow", because every time I spray myself with the stuff, I don't seem to be able to unglue my nose from my wrist.

    From everyone else's comments, it would seem that Malle and Ropion have scored a palpable hit.

  10. Hi Michael, and thanks very much indeed. That's a great little anecdote about your wife. Mine's the exact opposite: the more Arabian the scent, the better!

    And yes, according to the official notes, you're totally right about the Ambroxan.

  11. Persolaise, I'm not about to suggest a wife swop ;-) but as I love oud and Arabian scents, I could do with a moderation in my better half's stance!

  12. Oh my God, you never know where these discussions are going to go, do you! Michael, if your wife can teach mine to appreciate green scents, then maybe mine could help yours get friendlier with oud ;-)

  13. Been back & forth about this scent. Musc Ravageur is a favorite & so easy for me to wear. Decided to buy a travel vial of POAL because it would not cost as much as a fb & I needed to give the fragrance a chance via multiple wears. It seems the same genre as Galop (Hermes) which I like even as a supposed non rose lover. Very sophisticated. Reflects an aspect of my personality. Definitely not 'cheap' smelling like some sweet, fruity scents. I'm hoping to like it because Frédéric Malle releases well though out scents & appears dedicated to advancing the artistic side of perfumery.
    To add, I love & look forward to your reviews! They are a great reference. There are so many releases, it is difficult to understand at times which are true classics that endure or or releases of the moment. I guess it depends on what one wants. You clarify the distinction

    1. Keren, thanks very much for taking the time to write.

      Personally, I love POAL and I think it's one of the finest releases of recent years.

      Thanks very much for your kind comments about my writing.


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