Most press releases can be scanned and dismissed in a matter of seconds, but the ones from Serge Lutens are always worth a quiet read with a strong coffee and a sliver of dark chocolate. They rarely make objective sense - some of them take the form of obscure narratives or of impenetrable descriptive passages - and they hardly ever make reference to raw materials or ingredients. But in their refusal to offer journalists the easy short cut - ie olfactory pyramids and dubious lists of scent notes - and in their attempt to engage with 'the product' in an unconventional way, they do grasp at a sort of truth which digs deeper than a prosaic roll call featuring bergamot, sandalwood, musk and all the other usual suspects. The press material for the gnomic Frenchman's latest release - L'Orpheline, put together by Christopher Sheldrake - is a case in point: on one level, it may be bonkers, but on another, it marks a desire to persuade writers that the substance which they're about to spray upon themselves deserves to be taken more seriously - dare I say: more metaphysically? - than the latest lipstick.
On this occasion, the press pack is an interview between Uncle Serge himself and an unnamed inquisitor. Its primary concerns appear to be gender and childhood. "I was at war with the Male," says Lutens. "The father is the declared enemy. I was hatred on Earth, on Father. Of the mother I was the figurehead, and of the father the assassin." When the interviewer points out that L'Orpheline seems to be another retrospective, 'little girl' composition, following last year's icy La Fille De Berlin, Lutens exclaims, "I have cut the world in two. On the one hand, a girl, The Vanquished - not the loser! - and more precisely, that which germinated in her and which in myself, I raised; and on the other, a boy. The Victor. For a child, the world comes down to three people: himself, his mother and his father."
Don't say I didn't warn you! But unlikely as it may sound, all of this pseudy navel-gazing assumes pretty convincing olfactory form in the actual juice of L'Orpheline. Like all the most intriguing perfumes, it makes a virtue of duality, presenting two contrasting halves which sometimes regard each other across an insurmountable distance and, at other times, fall into an all-encompassing embrace. As the 'interview' above suggests, the conflict between the two stems from age-old oppositions: male/female, past/present, aggressive/passive, concealment/revelation. It presents itself from the moment the scent begins: there's a tiny puff of sparkling, winter-forest notes - juniper berries? rosemary? aldehydes? - followed by a suggestion of the chemically sterile, mineralic incense redolent of the heart of the brand's Eaux series.
The story is then taken up by the middle section, with florals recounting one strand and fougère-inspired, woody leathers the other. The former is represented by geranium - subtle, verdant and rose-like - as well as a faint, clove-y blanket of carnation. The latter appears in the guise of a pristine patchouli and a whisper of suede, as confident as moonlight (and not miles away from Cussons Imperial Leather circa 1985). The two factions exchange coy glances and reticent sighs. Occasionally, they indulge in a brief spat, battling each other for supremacy. But as the scent progresses, they draw ever closer into a union, sealing any gaps remaining between them.
And the conclusion? I'd say it is comfort itself. An exhalation of contentment. In keeping with the relative serenity of everything that has come before, the drydown barely raises its voice above the level of a hushed - albeit fervent - declaration. It sinks into a downy pliability, a dusty, velvety powderiness, as reassuring and as elusive as reminiscence (and, with its benzoin facet, as more-ish as the closing moments of Malle's Géranium Pour Monsieur). Just when the wearer lets down their guard, a suspicion of something burning makes its presence known in the background (the dying embers of yesteryear?) but it vanishes the moment it appears. Fleecy, soothing and deeply compelling, this final stage of the scent is, in Lutens' own words, "the wake of my life, that which remains when all has disappeared."
One of the most tender releases we've seen from the brand for quite some time, L'Orpheline wears its wounded heart on its sleeve and pleads for affection, even as it conceals its face behind an ivory shroud. Be kind to it... and I daresay your devotion will be richly rewarded.
[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Serge Lutens in 2014.]