Serge Lutens L'Incendiaire Plays with Our Trigeminal Sensations (2014) {Perfume Review & Musings}


L'Incendiaire or The Arsonist opens onto a somewhat familiar atmosphere which translates as being iris-y, fruity and woody, only with an added punch. The fire that the man who has a pathological problem with fire smells of red hot spices...

If at first you might think that I am implying that this new fragrance is rearranging the essential vocabulary of Lutens: bois, fruits and iris / violette, it is not exactly the impression I get from it. My initial impression was that the scent felt familiar but also external to the Lutensian universe.

This new opus is the first in a new collection of luxury perfumes called Section d'Or in which reportedly no price limits are set on the use of qualitative perfumery ingredients, a traditional leitmotiv of perfumery which has lost its meaning mostly, except if you suddenly increase prices. The end result is that L'Incendiaire is sold for $600. I do not think that what sets it apart from other perfumes launched today is the exceptional quality of its ingredients. Yes, the iris is luxurious, but not a main pull here.

One of the characteristics of Lutens is how he is able to convey a sense of interiority and refining of elements through the sieve of his mind and sensibility. In this case, I am irresistibly and very quickly reminded of an external work, one perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin did for an obscure yet very present perfume of Lithuanian fashion designer Juozas Statkevicius. It is not world-famous except in the confidential circles of niche perfumery following. It is as "niche" as it gets.

One gets a sense that there is a lot of that structure at play in L'Incendiaire. But where the incense and powders of time are meditative in their tone in Juozas Statkevicius, L'Incendiaire stings and hurts your sense of smell and state of equanimity. The spices transform themselves from a roaring but warm fire to one which attacks your nostrils and state of mind. L'Incendiaire is voluntarily hurtful.

Olfactorily speaking it can be compared to what a tube of Vicks does to your head and nose, only more severe. Or you could imagine a maleficent mustard out to get you and embalm your brain in its pickled tentacles, vinegar-y tongue fading into refrigerating embalming fluids.

In other words, L'Incendiaire is a work on pain. Suffering and pain, souffrance et douleur, have been a recurring leitmotiv in Lutens perfumes. But nowhere has it been expressed so literally.

To this extent, L'Incendiaire is at once niche-y, personal and innovative. It reminds me of an experiment that had been conducted in 2011 on a perfume "prickly" enough to be felt by anosmic people, Eau Pear Tingle by American indie house Opus Oils. I have not smelled it, but I think it is in the same category of sensory intent. While the latter was dedicated to anosmic people, we are invited to consider that L'Incendiaire is meant for those who think they can smell easy (but in fact are no less anosmic, metaphorically speaking).

Serge_Lutens_Incendiaire_kino.jpg What L'Incendiaire is doing quite purposefully is play with our trigeminal nerve, the one that allows us to experiment cold, warmth, tingliness, and pain. If the food industry and especially the candy industry are very interested in these sensations - think Atomic Fire Balls in the USA or Têtes Brûlées in France - they are not often explored in fine fragrances. Lutens has offered in the past a head note going in this direction with Tubéreuse Criminelle camphoraceous umbrella and more recently got closer to a full-on trigeminal perfume with Laine de Verre. Dior Homme Sport is a fragrance partly inspired by red hot cinnamon candies. Marilyn Miglin also offered a rare horseradish-like facet in her fragrance Fo-Ti-Tieng. Usually, touches of trigeminal spices are added like pepper or chili or camphor but all in all, it remains an innovative branch of perfumery.

However, it is not certain that Serge Lutens is trying to be of service to his fellow men and women by forcing us to smell more consciously and painfully. He may very well be only interested in upsetting us. This perfume is stylistically at the opposite end of the people-pleasing thrust of the perfume industry. This fragrance here is out to disturb you and does so over the course of the development of nearly the whole composition.

After exploring the rich textures of renewed, modern Orientals, then one day proclaiming neutrality was essential in our over-perfumed societies with his L'Eau, today Serge Lutens wants to be extremely disagreeable. And he succeeds at that. Short of bottling a sulphur-lit perfume which might veer towards the scent of rotten eggs, he has constructed with the help of perfumer Christopher Sheldrake one of those medicinal perfumes that we all know of, only power of ten. L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain is gentle cherry cough syrup compared to it. This is a bitter potion with an uncannily prolonged effect upon your senses. It not only burrows your sinuses but goes up to your head and stays there mimicking the effect of a migraine caused by too strong an inhalation of gaz, or camphor, or Chloroform. Only the drydown relents with more of a rahat-lokoum feel wrapped in iris plus a nod to that heavy, warm and sweet ambery concoction, KL by Lagerfeld.

Serge Lutens has always been known for his capacity to create a provocative perfumery. As his work has progressed you can only see that the definition of "provocative" has become more physical. In Laine de Verre, an interesting abrasive opus, this tendency started being felt more tangibly. La Vierge de Fer evoked a torture instrument but then the jus itself was rather velvety.

Lutens' discourse has often been filled with physical metaphors of fight and struggle and social antagonism. Four of his favorite writers are reputed for their anti-social itineraries: Jean Genêt, Antonin Artaud, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, but also the more ambivalent figure of Proust, both a snob and closet renegate. So, there is in his universe, apart from the softness of pastries and the refinement of aestheticism, a quest for rawness, the rawness of emotions and truth, something that goes beyond social appearances.

L'Incendiaire is his best angry-man pamphlet to date. In it, he expresses his anger at polite society by using one of its most polite intruments, perfume, and turning it into an expressive and aggressive weapon to question our notion of the perfuming and disguising gesture, pointing out to necessary, salubrious discomfort instead for our souls.

If gourmand perfumes are singing the pleasures of a well-nourished society keen on slimming down, fragrances like L'Incendiaire are more like a wake-up call for us not to get too comfortable in our luxuries and habits. The fact that the fragrance is priced at $600 might indicate that like Robin Hood, Lutens only targets the rich to redistribute more equally. If you see this new Section d'Or as a fund-raising attempt to get more money to devote to his more accessible creative perfumery, then, yes, he is doing something akin to an anti-establishment gesture. But to me, it feels more like L'Incendiaire is a psychological opus filled with the contradictions of its creator who both loves luxury and needs his distance from the social order which makes it meaningful. Section d'Or is really a golden island and break-away territory of freedom where solitude is the ultimate luxury for Lutens.

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