The first words that came to my mind upon smelling this, L’Orpheline, -The Orphan – Serge Lutens’ latest addition to his ever-expanding portfolio of perfumes, were…. ‘mean-spirited.’
Spiteful, grey; flinty, miserable, a scent that if you were to wear on a dark and rainy day, skulking through jet-black puddles under your November umbrella, might just tip you right over the edge in its haunting, face-reflecting bleakness: this perfume, to me, is bad mood in a bottle.
The second word that came to my mind, I’m afraid, was ‘unoriginal’. The sheer number of peppered, dour incense perfumes that have been released recently in the world of niche perfumery is quite startling, as if the fiscal austerity that has gripped a few parts of Europe over these last few years of economic and societal difficulty had been translated, in grim and unrelenting unsmilingness, into our perfume. For those that consider themselves ‘serious artists’. For the people in the fashion industry; dressed in black, their no nonsense baby, drip me in incense feel my cool, metalic exteriors; their no sweetness, no pink; no gourmandise flippancy – please!……These Byredos, Comme Des Garçons, Agonists and Tauers; these taut and unforgiving bleaknesses that sear the nostrils and clad the air around them with their drynesses and armour and that have become an overfamiliar leitmotif of angular self-consciousness; of hair-cut severity, and of a certain, grave-hungry and sunken cheeked chic.
L’Orpheline, a perfume I do quite like, actually, despite what I have just written above, still smells incredibly familiar to those that know Lutens well. There is the inky black Japaneseness of the (far more daring and interesting) Serge Noire; a touch of the spiced forest darkness of Fille En Aiguilles (though with none of that perfume’s delicious, caramellized ginger compromises), but there is, also, a new departure of dry, skeletal boniness; of seared and moisture-sucked frankincense resins that does bring us in mind in fact of physical and spiritual emaciation. An orphan, indeed. A matchstick girl, playing alone with tindersticks. A barebranched winter; a mournfulness, the theme making most definite sense. Yes; an orphan.
And Lutens has totally gone to town this time with his background story, his imagery, his psychosexual pathways meant to lead us into ‘understanding’ a perfume that is, when all is said and done, rather simple. It is a watery, and melancholic ink painting, effective and atmospheric, well-executed and canny, that nevertheless does smell, as I have said, like scores of other niche perfumes that we have known these past few years; these dry and brittle scents that flood the trendier shelves of the outlier boutique perfumeries with their skeins of dead leaves; their deracinated woods, their frowns under fringes; their ‘pain’ and pseudo religious nonsense.
I still can’t help being slightly drawn in, though. I like these linkings of creative psychobabble and autobiography being segued into scent, the passion involved in someone’s inner most sanctums being candidly and liquidly immortalized (if you allow yourself to suspend some disbelief for a moment). “Yes, if you believe that she is the abandoned part of me. I have cut the world in two”, the master writes in his (quite incomprehensible) commentary, alluding quite openly to his traumatized childhood; his hatred of the father, his splintering off into a girl child alter ego that he is releasing, here, from incarceration……
L’Orpheline is a perfume come from ‘dust’, from the ‘wake of his life': a darkened duality of almost Gothic gloom and speckled soil (unmoistened frankincense; black pepper, myrrrh and woods, with patchouli) that is severe; mineralic, moody and very deflective in these initial, love-fearing stages. We do sense quite strongly that this person, damaged and sensitized, most definitely does, when we first come across her, want to be left alone.
And this is perhaps the key to L’Orpheline. Perhaps the least fleshed and voluptuous of the Serge Lutens creations, it is more like a fragile, self-protecting shroud, with only the crows nesting in the trees keeping a watchful eye on your progress as you talk to them, alone, making your way, out of necessity, to some destination beyond those blackened, psychic trees that line the pathways.
Yes, there is a doleful blanket of wintriness that encircles the air about The Orphan as she walks along, in timidity, keeping the frays of tears, always, when visible, in her eyes, but I must reiterate again that there also is a thinness: a musty, old font of church ozonic wateriness (the base notes do, I have to say, remind me somewhat of Demeter’s rather tongue-in-cheek Holy Water) that grates, as it lingers in my mind.
She cannot keep it up, though. Perhaps the orphan is a Sagittarian, and, you know, that unavoidable unbridled optimism will always inevitably, eventually at some point just lay some more full-bodied stakes in the proceedings. Soon, soft musks, modern, familiar cashmeran, and a more anchored, tonka bean wilfulness come into play, and she is one of us, again, now – more playful, eased, and smooth. She evinces a happier (if more banal) aura at this point: a soft and comforting stole that makes quite an enveloping contrast with the cold, wind-chipped bitterness of those initial, more painstaking overtures.
In between, during her more satisfying middle act (the most successful stage of this perfume), there is a very nice morphing that occurs between the two contrasting facets in the scent, where a blanket of sandalwood-like warmth begins to hover above, and the more balsamic and gentle undertones begin to coalesce quite happily with the damp and evil peppercorns persisting in the scent’s thorny outer layers (the ‘forgiveness’ that Lutens is talking about, his way out of the emotional labyrinth?). Whatever it is, the base notes of L’Orpheline, as they make themselves known, are soft, smoothed over, and certainly, for many people I would imagine, quite potentially soothing.
For me, though, they are also uninspiring. While wearing and smelling this scent throughout the day today has been intriguing (and I think it could actually smell quite beguiling on the right, wide-eyed person who can carry it off), the gauntness at the heart of this perfume’s composition, though in some ways linking quite convincingly to the spindly-limbed images we have of little, undernourished orphans, make me yearn, nevertheless, for the original, unreformulated Serge Lutens perfumes from back in the day when he first unleashed himself on us all with those rash, impassioned Moroccan oil paintings that were anything at all but wan, miserabilist and tear-flecked. They were bold. They were thick, they were quite uncompromising and exotic. Outrageous, even. So though the pathos inherent in the concept behind the L’Orpheline is admittedly quite interesting to me (and I love the fact that the emotional palette of the Lutens collection is gradually widening) I also think, ultimately, that I do definitely prefer something more generous.