Dent de Lait (Milk Tooth) is one of two new compositions by the house of Serge Lutens - the other is Bourreau des Fleurs. Anyone who is used to the Lutensian universe knows that what you can expect usually, is the unexpected. Calling a fine perfume "Milk Tooth" - and even saying it in French does not make it sound more palatable - has certainly pushed the line of a semantic frontier for the polite society...
Thematically however, we go back to the artist's obsession with childhood, his, and the passing of time, with death lurking on the horizon. Lutens has been morosely contemplating his perfumes like a man looking at his aging face in a mirror in the half-shadows of a dimly lit room, looking into his own eyes and the eyes of mortality - his way of feeling alive and cultivating a quiet revolt. At times, he rages. But this time, he just remembers in his sleep an episode of his past fraught with fear while listening to the ticking of his wristwatch. There is the memory of the cruelty of children in the school yard, symbolized by a vision of smirking and taunting faces revealing "abandoned sections of the dental arch,"
"The leather of my wristwatch encircles my left wrist. In the centre of the watch face turn two hands, an integral part of the mechanism, one indicating the hours and the longer one the minutes. They demonstrate the existence of time, a concept as elusive as God. Each day I descend a little further into it. But a child appears in my deepest slumber, asking me to go to take a look. What does the want me to see? Myself as a pupil in the playground, back against the wall, alarmed at my fear provoked by the violence I saw in others? It was the age when you were supposed to be able to distinguish between Good and Evil. To recognise the male and the female in these faces. To know your friends from your enemies. The onset of a danger when, panicked, you see abandoned sections of the dental arch."
"Milk Tooth", this bizarre name, is actually meant to purposefully convey early human ugliness. It is therefore not so much strange a name as an ugly one - and acceptingly so. School bullying supplemented with Internet bullying today is oh-so topical. How can you respond to gratuitous violence and cowardice? Lutens' answer is: with a memory turned into a perfume composition. The scent itself is a bit cold and challenging at first, but gives way to warmth - you could say, human warmth.
Olfactorily speaking, Dent de Lait inscribes itself for part of its personality in the line of anti-perfumes by Lutens which was inaugurated with L'Eau in 2010. They are fragrances, which come into existence, while kicking at the same time in an ants' nest of societal values about perfume. Perfectly disciplined ants want to smell good, also voluptuous and also, clean. Ants also want to smell like their personal scent can make others stop carrying their little piece of sugar or cheese. Perhaps, ants can dream if they wear perfume. Lutens thought there were too many ants-like persons in society and wanted them to become individual, and sometimes flamboyantly individual.
Lutens has thus been part of the equation of the creation of demanding perfumes. He's been at the forefront of it. This, he does not really relinquish, but a few years ago, he decided that being demanding as a perfume artist - working with Christopher Sheldrake, now at Chanel - meant kicking his own edifice of rich, complex neo-Orientalist perfumes, which for instance an economical perfumer like Jean Claude Ellena admitted was interesting but diametrally opposed to his own style - and call for silencing the noise produced by too many perfumes in society. So, a return to purity was engineered. L'Eau (The Water) marked the turning point, followed by L'Eau Froide, Laine de Verre and L'Eau de Paille. Now you know that Serge Lutens was trying to expiate his sins by washing himself clean with clear water, cold water and then using glass fiber as a modernist cilice or hair shirt. Then, purified, he rested in new-mown hay in a field in the summer.
Kids and the Chocolate Shop // Les enfants devant le chocolatier © CHANT WAGNER 2017
Dent de Lait starts by smelling like some of the most transparent and clean perfumes by Lutens. It is another chapter, it seems, in his quest for non-perfume perfume and the purity and innocence of childhood. The French text he wrote about the new scent quotes one line from the popular French folk song A La Claire Fontaine "Il y longtemps que je t'aime, jamais je ne t'oublierai." (I have loved you for so long I will never forget you) in which we find indirectly expressed the theme of water, that of a fountain this time.
It makes you think that Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Celestia was an attempt to be part of these demanding clear eaux, but Sheldrake's + Lutens's work is much more mature on that front.
The exaggerated, near-industrial cleanliness of the beginnings, mitigated only by what smells like lychee, bitter almond, tuberose and scratchy indoles, slowly gives way to softer sensations. The composition smells of vague and pleasing florals, rubber. You detect familiar Lutensian undertones of plummy, fruity woods - and soon, sandalwood, not cedar, but with a raspberry kick, which makes it smell like an edited oud wood where you keep the fruit and replace the medicinal wood with sandalwood. The latter has a warm quality and a subtle, fabled lactonic quality too, which in the end, does make room for the milk in "milk tooth". Sandalwood has often been called "maternal" for this breast-milk, comforting quality. Lutens time and again references his mother in his perfumes, with whom he apparently had a difficult relationship.
There is a sense of appeasement in the end however, a sense of happy, serene resolution, which is further encouraged by the photograph Lutens made for illustrating the scent, that of a young child carrying his milk tooth as a pendant, all smiles. Only the scent of burnt ashes (smoky resins) at the very end of the long drydown reminds you that mother and mortality share a beginning-and-end affinity besides starting with the same letters, a resemblance even more hearable in French with "mère" and "mort". Only one vowel sound changes. In the day-after drydown, a buried remembrance of Mûre et Musc appears but inflected more towards the natural, vegetal muskiness of the ambrette seeds of No. 18 by Chanel. It makes for a very lasting skin scent with a nice, invisible radiance.
Dent de Lait is a beautiful, emotional composition; we saw this with Louve, a perfume that can create a knot in your throat and to which the author alludes in his text,
"Now weary of the tongue's games which have for weeks on end been loosening its tooth, a young wolf is anxious to move on from milk to blood,"
There is a sense of mystical longing in the composition, which is one of the joys that Serge Lutens + Christopher Sheldrake are able to create for others.