The latest from Lutens and Sheldrake is a delightful exercise in wrong-footing the wearer. At first, a potential buyer is likely to notice its colour: dense, purple and almost opaque, it wouldn't look out of place inside a bottle of Ribena. Then comes the name. Granted, 'The Girl From Berlin' doesn't necessarily conjure any specific olfactory references, but I'd argue that it channels visions of Sally Bowles and pre-war decadence, which would, in turn, suggest a bold, showy scent. And then of course there's the baggage surrounding Uncle Serge himself. Rightly or wrongly, his eponymous brand has become associated with the heavier end of the perfumery spectrum - as defined by western tastes - and the sight of a fragrance that looks like it's been squeezed out of a vat of ripe berries would seem to play right into such a reputation.
But when it's released onto skin, the smell comes as a surprise. It's a simple rose. Indeed, it's so simple that when you first spray it, you wonder if something isn't quite right. Have you applied enough? Are you coming down with a cold? Could the sample be defective? Displaying an unassuming, mono-dimensional cleanliness - of the sort you'd expect from the rose scent of a cream like, say, Nivea - the perfume settles upon your flesh and stays put, as though intent on avoiding complexity.
Needless to say, complexity is just around the corner. This is a Lutens production, after all, and it comes at a point in the man's olfactory oeuvre when he seems particularly concerned with childhood memories and the tricksy ways in which they influence our perceptions of the present. So the rose which initially presents such disarming innocence suddenly begins to catch the light with an edge that grows increasingly metallic and blood-like. The sweetness grows more cloying, until it hints at the earthy, overpowering stickiness of Asian cordials like Rooh Afza. And the Rive Gauche-style powderiness becomes treacherous, choosing not to enhance the heart of the composition, but to cloak it in a veil of ice.
This subtle, intriguing dance between perception and reality continues for some considerable time. When it ends, the victor seems to be unblemished purity - laundry musks are a prominent component of the drydown - but the conclusion isn't so neat as to be easily dismissed. A deceptively straightforward piece of work, La Fille De Berlin subverts expectations and becomes that most enjoyable of fragrances: a long-lasting, attractive creation which retreats to the background when it isn't required to take centre-stage, but offers interesting rewards to those who wish to delve beneath its inscrutably smiling surface.
[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Serge Lutens in 2013.]