The name of this fragrance always put me off. Understanding it to mean “Gates of Hell” I imagined Passage d’Enfer to be sulphurous and indolic. However that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Released in 1999, it contains notes of white lily, frankincense, aloe wood, benzoin and white musk. Being an Olivia Giacobetti creation, Passage d’Enfer was never going to be overwhelming. Far from it: it’s quiet and meditative.
Its hushed tone seems to suit its spiritual home of a medieval church. It reminds me of the Notre Dame in Paris which I visited on my 18th birthday. Like that very special cathedral, Passage d’Enfer has a holy atmosphere which verges on the mystical.
I don’t find anything hellish about it, but there is a dark shadow lurking behind the gothic pillars. The mood is contemplative, mysterious and otherworldly. I find it beguiling.
For me, Passage d’Enfer only suggests the presence of lily. There are hints of the soft waxy feel of the petals, the luminous white colour and the prettiness of the flower. But when I breathe it in, I don’t think “lily”. It’s very subtle and not at all indolic or high-pitched. I suffer from white flower fear, but there isn’t the slightest danger of it being headache-inducing.
The incense in Passage d’Enfer is soft and more woody than resinous. It’s the scent of a stick of incense that has recently been snuffed out, leaving its smoky tendrils spiralling up towards the vaulted ceiling.
Serge Lutens played a not dissimilar game of light and shade recently. His L’Orpheline combined dark incense with soapy aldehydes but I find Passage d’Enfer much more feminine and intriguing.
When I spray Passage d’Enfer, I don’t feel like I’m wearing something obvious. I enjoy contradictions, so a fragrance which is ashy and clean, earthbound and ethereal, makes me happy. It’s a clever, minimalist composition which is intellectual as well as soulful.
It’s so gentle I highly recommend it to those who have struggled with incense perfumes in the past. It’s a muted, airy scent which you can apply with a heavy hand to get more volume.
Despite the lack of projection, I love the contrast between the musty stone of the church walls and the crisp freshness of the calla lilies on the altar. There are also hints of the wooden pews and dripping beeswax candles. There’s a sacred atmosphere but it’s more complex than that.
Picture the following scene…
It’s dusk and the light filtering through the stained glass windows is fading fast. A woman offers up a desperate prayer to save her soul from temptation.
If anyone gets close enough to smell her, they’ll be left wondering. Yes, they will get holy incense with hints of innocent flowers, but they will also sense something less pure: a quietly burning desire.
Chaste in body yet wanton in mind.
Perhaps Passage d’Enfer is not such a misnomer after all.