Smoky leather corseted by frankincense, then enveloped in resinous amber, spicy patchouli, and fiery cloves lies at the heart of Cannibale, one of Serge Lutens‘ new parfums in his Section d’Or Collection. It’s a fragrance that took me all over the place. Images of wild tribal dances around smoky fires competed with flashbacks to France’s Madame Pompadour and the powdered aristocrats of the ancien regime wearing old-fashioned rice powder and acidic floral vinegars at Versailles. Those flashbacks were later replaced by flashforwards in time to modern niche hits like Mona di Orio‘s Cuir, Annick Goutal‘s Ambre Fetiche, and Tom Ford‘s Amber Absolute (or its tweaked parallel version, Sahara Noir).
And, throughout it all, there were loud reverberations of several past Lutens‘ creations, first and foremost Serge Noire, then Ambre Sultan and L’Incendiaire. At times, parts of Cannibale drew me in appreciatively before another element repelled me, sometimes making me recoil quite literally. There were also glimmers of the old Luten’ innovative whimsy and originality, but they occurred early on, before being drowned out entirely by a bouquet that made me feel I was wearing fragrances from other brands. When you spend a small chunk of time mentally cataloguing all the possible amber, leather, and Serge Noire combinations that could create the same scent — one bearing a far higher price tag than those individual parts — then I think there is a problem.
Cannibale is a pure parfum that was presumably created by Christopher Sheldrake. The official Lutens description quoted on Premiere Avenue says little about the scent or its notes except for a brief mention of 18th century floral vinegars:
The cannibal is famished. How can we mention him without a reference to love?
It leaves a vibrant acidity on the nose and on the skin, reminiscent of the floral vinegars of 18th century France.
Serge Lutens keeps his note list secret, but most early assessments detect rose along with some variety of incense. Based on what appeared on my skin and to my nose, I thought Cannibale had the greatest complexity or number of notes out of the five new releases, and my guess would be include:
Rose, carnation, vinegar or a floral vinegar, cloves, patchouli, rice powder, labdanum amber, ambergris, frankincense, styrax resin, birch tar leather, castoreum, guaiacol, woody-amber aromachemicals, myrrh, sweet myrrh, and tonka.
Cannibale opens on my skin with a trio of spicy roses, spicy carnation, and spicy brown patchouli, all dusted with fiery cloves and sweetened rice powder, drizzled with a solid slug of floral vinegar, then nestled within a rich haze of ambergris that smells musky, marshy, slightly salty, and caramel-laced sweet. The latter is a beautiful note in its richness, and it works wonderfully with the quiet earthiness of the patchouli, the fiery florals, and the piquant cloves.
In the base is a thick, practically turgid river of leathery resins, so darkly balsamic as to feel like treacle. Its leatheriness is almost as earthy as everything else and also bears an undercurrent of charred woods, but the note is smoky above all else. Its tiny plumes curl up to weave around the top notes, adding to the visual panoply of red and black. Yet, there is so much ambergris warmth and fiery spiciness that the ultimate image is — forgive the cultural stereotyping — of a tribe from Africa, Samoa, or the Amazon doing a traditional fire dance.
Nevertheless, quantity seems to make a big difference to the notes that appear and to their proportions because the opening 15-20 minutes of Cannibale were quite different when I applied less of the fragrance. With a small dose equal to 1 light spritz from an actual bottle, Cannibale opened with dried, pressed roses, carnations, rice powder, an amorphous spiciness, and a lightly sugared sweetness that reminded me of heliotrope’s marzipan and powdery sides combined with tonka. The patchouli wasn’t noticeable in a profound or distinct way; the smoky leather and dark resins were so microscopic as to be practically irrelevant; the amber was a mere generalized golden warmth devoid of salty, marshy, or musky richness; the floral vinegar was both profound and sharp; and the powderiness intense. With a larger dosage, the vinegar and powder are not only kept in check, but overshadowed by significantly darker, heavier, spicier, and more robust elements. Both versions quickly end up the same but, if you’re testing Cannibale, you may want to keep in mind that its fiery, darker, smoky, and leathery sides are more immediately apparent if you apply a larger amount.
The odd, whimsical touch in all this is the strong, distinct note of rice powder, so evocative of the ancien regime and the powdered faces of aristocrats like Madame Pompadour. It reminds me strongly of Oriza L. Legrand, the old French perfume house founded by Fargeon the Elder. He made fragrances for Louis the XV, and derived the name “Oriza” from “Oryza Sativa,” the Latin name for rice which was part of his cosmetics’ ingredients. Fargeon’s potions and creams were rumoured to be the secret of Ninon de Lenclos, a great courtesan known for her beauty and eternal youth, but all of Versailles wore his powdery fragrances, starting with the King of France himself. In 1909, Oriza paid tribute to its original patron by creating Oeillet Louis XV, a fragrance centered on rose, carnation, cloves, and rice powder that was re-released in virtually identical form. Last year, the brand re-issued Oriza Aciduliné (or Vinaigre de Toilette), one of the floral fragrance vinegars formulated by Fargeon back in the 18th century.
It’s hard not to think of both things when wearing Cannibale, and that leaves me a little torn. The 18th century elements are completely new for Serge Lutens, a radically different direction that he hasn’t explored before (that I can think of), and wonderful in that sense. Having them juxtaposed next to the dark “cannibal” fire accords is full of that sense of whimsy and strangeness that marks some of the old Lutens (think of Mandarine Mandarin where Chinese and mandarin elements bear an unexpected, strange whiff of celery!), but is it really original if I’m bringing up Oriza creations from the past or, in fact, the powders, florals, and floral vinegars that commonly typified a whole century’s approach to scent? I’m going to say it is, simply because Serge Lutens hasn’t done anything like this before, but my real difficulty is whether the juxtapositions work here. I don’t really think they do, not only because they are jarring, but also because of balance issues.
Case in point, regardless of whether I apply a small or normal amount of Cannibale, the spicy, floral, oriental bouquet takes on a profound acidity and sourness on my skin. There is only so much that vinegar’s innate qualities can be tamped down, and they start to bloom less than 15 minutes into the perfume’s development. It’s not the more rounded, almost wine-like aroma of balsamic vinegar on my skin, but the intensely sharp acidity of apple cider vinegar with a thin red vinegar tossed in. From a distance and when I smell Cannibale on the scent trail in the air, the overwhelming impression is of acidulée florals that are strangely rendered sweet, sour, spicy, and sour again. The patchouli, amber, and clove lover in me is drawn so much to one side of the equation, while put off by the other, especially when the fragrance continues to turn more acidic up close with every passing moment.
The thing that keeps nagging at me, though, is a sense of familiarity when I separate the vinegar out from the rest of the notes. Something about the combination of rose, patchouli, ambergris, and cloves dusted with sweetened powder really reminds me of another fragrance, but I can’t place it. It’s primarily the fiery, spicy, sweet, and ambery notes. I briefly thought of Caron‘s Poivre, but it’s not that. Things become clearer roughly 20 minutes in when Cannibale develops more and more into a spice-laden, smoky, patchouli-amber. The patchouli takes on a boozy quality, while also turning smokier, in part from the growing puffs of styrax and leather in wafting up from the base. At the same time, the carnation and rose fuse together in such a way that they might as well be a single spicy, red floral. The combined effect reminds me of the boozy, smoky patchouli in Oriza‘s Horizon mixed with Oriza‘s Oeillet Louis XV and the patchouli, hemp, resinous, clove, and spicy aspects of Parfumerie Generale‘s Coze. (In fact, Coze comes to mind a great deal in this stage.)
By the 30 minute mark, Cannibale has suddenly morphed into a blazing, full-on, patchouli and resin-centric fragrance, wafting spicy, smoky, boozy, leathery, woody, and earthy facets. Each of those natural facets in the patchouli is further amplified by the other elements: its spiciness is turned into fieriness from the heaping amount of cloves; its smokiness given chewy heft from the styrax; its leathery nuances rendered loud and thick from the new arrival of tarry birch; its woody character rendered burnt by the new notes of cade and guaiacol; and its musky sweetness is expanded by the ambergris, then darkened by the further addition of toffee’d labdanum. Amidst the surge of darkness from the new arrivals, the rose-carnation duo weave in and out, threading the various parts together, but they’re now secondary elements at best, maybe even tertiary. For the most part, Cannibale has transformed into a hardcore mix of patchouli, smoky balsamic resins, fiery spices, tarry leather, charred woods, and darkly ambered, musky warmth.
In essence, it has become a richer, deeper, smokier version of Serge Lutens‘ very polarizing Serge Noire, without the cumin but with a different sort of earthiness. In that sense, it also echoes L’Incendiaire which, in and of itself, replicated many elements of Serge Noire on my skin. The difference is that Cannibale also bears a backdrop of spicy, red florals and a powerful, heavy dousing of acidic vinegar. It’s like a demonic version of a millefeuille, layering profound darkness, spiciness, smokiness, sour acidity, and sweetness. Something about it occasionally makes my back teeth twinge, but I can’t figure out if it’s the sweetness, the sharp acidity, or the simultaneous occurrence of both things at once. At the very least, this Section d’Or fragrance has definite character and boldness, in spades, even if it’s Serge Noire’s character.
Cannibale changes dramatically when the first hour draws to a close and the second begins. The smoky leatheriness suddenly wells up from the base, pouring over the top notes, and wrestling with the patchouli for domination. It smells as though the earlier styrax has been slathered with thick layers of birch tar, cade, and possibly isobutyl quinoline — all traditional perfume elements in creating the impression of “leather.” Something about the accord here also bears a chemical clamour, the aroma of heavily burnt woods that strongly reminds me of the synthetic note in Serge Lutens’ new Sidi Bel-Abbes and which, here, like there, resembles guaiacol. Guaiacol is an intensely phenolic chemical compound that smells like a raging forest fire, but it also has a creosote-like tarriness to it that is far more leathery here than it was in Sidi Bel-Abbes.
The new focus is so different from how Cannibale began in its opening moments that it almost feels like an entirely different scent. Major twists used to be one of Serge Lutens’ signatures, and I was happy to see it back again. I only wish I were keener on the actual olfactory changes. It doesn’t take long for the black river of leather layered with smoke and burnt woods to take the lead from the patchouli which now falls into second place, followed by the slew of resins, ambers, and spice. The carnation and rose die away, though whispers of floralcy remain within the very persistent vinegar. Even the rice powder clings on. The old-fashioned notes feel even more disconcerting than before in the face of this very modern type of leather. Odder still are the puffs of an earthy but distinctly meaty note that pop up at the edges, undoubtedly from the clove which has occasionally manifested a “meaty” side in other fragrances that I’ve tried.
Cannibale continues to shift at the start of the 2nd hour. First, it grows more leathery and smoky with every passing moment. Then, the leather itself changes, turning muskier and taking on a subtle animalic quality that smells like castoreum. At the same time, the leather also becomes dustier, as though a plume of ashes from the forest fire had fallen over it. Its woody undertone also turns drier and bears a more noticeable whiff of synthetics that resembles the same woody-amber aromachemical used in Sidi Bel-Abbes. What’s odd is how Cannibale is simultaneous dry and intensely smoky, but also hugely syrupy, sticky, sour, and fiery as well. I don’t know what to make of it, except that parts repel me with its unbalanced bombast. Both Serge Noire and L’Incendiaire were far better modulated on my skin.
Other changes are taking place as well. A new element appears, a distinct and heaping dose of Somali frankincense. It’s a beautiful note that is quietly resinous and smoky, but also church-y in a dusty, woody way. At the same time, the patchouli fuses with the ambergris and the labdanum to form a thick, musky cocoon within which all the other notes operate. The cloves continue to infuse everything in sight, particularly the tarry, smoky, musky leather.
Less than 90 minutes into Cannibale’s development, all these elements coalesce to turn the fragrance into a mix of Serge Noire, Mona di Orio‘s Cuir, and a frankincense version of Ambre Sultan that lacks its herbal beginning (so, essentially, Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute or Sahara Noir). I’ve tested Cannibale a few times and the strength of the leather’s resemblance to Mona di Orio’s Cuir (minus the cardamom) never fails to astonish me. The mix of resinous darkness, the smoky amber, and the leather also frequently evoked Annick Goutal‘s Ambre Fetiche, while the burnt woods briefly made me think of Carner Barcelona‘s Cuirs. Cannibale’s syrupy sweetness also bears an occasional ghostly whiff of dark, cooked fruits, so one could even add tiny drops of Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather, Serge Lutens’ incense-y plum Fille en Aiguilles, and/or Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais to the mix. But really, above all else, Cannibale is first and foremost Mona di Orio’s Cuir layered with Serge Noire and Amber Absolute-Ambre Fetiche, then lightly drizzled with acidic floral vinegar (the latter only for a short while longer).
Cannibale smells like this trio for basically the next 7 hours straight. All that happens is that its secondary nuances change. At the start of the 3rd hour, the vinegar largely fades from sight, though wisps of it occasionally pop up in the background from time to time. It’s the same for the powder and the vinegar’s vestige of floralcy. By the end of the 5th hour, the leather turns even ashier, dustier and more overtly animalic with very distinct streaks of castoreum. It’s a virtual parallel of the same changes that Mona di Orio’s Cuir goes through on my skin. At the same time, Cannibale’s woody, smoky, and woody-amber synthetics turn profoundly chemical and feel abrasive on my skin. In olfactory terms, they make the woody and dry tonalities in the fragrance almost as strong as the Serge Noire clove, patchouli, and resinous ones.
Roughly 8.25 hours into its development, Cannibale is primarily a dry, intensely smoky, leather fragrance or, in other words, it’s now just Mona di Orio’s Cuir. The patchouli, amber, frankincense, and sweetness are so weak that they’re essentially mere undertones that you have to sniff close to detect. The leather is flecked primarily with by the same five-alarm forest fire, woody synthetic note used in Sidi Bel-Abbes. A dusting of spicy cloves remains strewn on top. What surprises me are the pops of acidic vinegar that still show up from time to time in the background. There is a quiet touch of powderiness as well, but it’s no longer the cosmetic rice variety of the early moments. Now, it’s tonka instead.
The tonka is responsible for Cannibale’s final shift in focus when it surges to the forefront to coat the leather at the start of the drydown phase roughly 10 hours into the perfume’s development. It’s joined by myrrh and nutty sweet myrrh as well. In essence, Cannibale is now a mix of tarry, smoky leather and soft suede, infused with myrrh, sweet myrrh, and tonka creaminess before being lightly dusted with cloves. A subtle ambered warmth lingers over it all, though it never reads as a distinct layer of labdanum or ambergris. Over the time, Cannibale turns into a soft, smoky, clove-ish suede, then into a simple smoky, creamy, golden spiciness. It dies away much the same way, almost 21 hours from its start with a few spritzes equal to 2 good sprays from a bottle but just short of 18 hours with the equivalent of 1 spray.
Cannibale had moderate projection and initially powerful sillage that took a while to turn soft. Using the equivalent of 2 sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with 4 to 5 inches of projection and 6-8 inches of sillage. It felt even stronger at the end of the first hour when the patchouli took over, wafting its boozy tonalities, and the scent turned smokier. The sillage grew and, at one point, extended a few feet. However, 3 hours in, the projection shrunk to 1.5 inches, while the scent trail dropped to about 6-8 inches. Cannibale became a skin scent after 9 hours, but it was still easy to detect without effort until the 12th hour at which point I had to put my nose right on my skin. Its longevity was the greatest of the five new Section d’Or releases, even if it was a quiet coating from the 12th hour onwards. If someone with more normal skin applied a large quantity, I think the longevity numbers could go even higher because this is the sort of fragrance where vestiges would remain even after a shower. (That happened to me with Cannibale at one point, actually.)
Parts of my experience with Cannibale seem somewhat similar to that of Mark Behnke at Colognoisseur. He writes:
Cannibale is perhaps the one with the most promise as it has its moments. Most of those are around a heart of myrrh, cistus, and rose. This leads to a base of incense but also intrusive woodsmoke. There is a fleeting reminder of the trademark Lutens stewed fruit but even that can’t make this more interesting.
On Fragrantica, “Deadidol” was equally dismissive, though he indirectly brings up the leather part of the scent, along with the aromachemicals by reference to other fragrances (including the dreaded Montale line which is always a terrible, ominous comparison for any fragrance, in my opinion):
This smells like Portrait of a Lady sprayed on cardboard. It’s the same sparkle rose and incense effect that’s been done plenty of times before. Myrrh drags the scent down play-dough paths, but for the most part, it’s the same concept as POAL, Nevermore, Cuir Garamante, and about 30 Montales. The difference here is that Cannibale turns into a more yogurty tuberose after an hour or so whereas others in this genre tend to be more robust (especially POAL). Cannibale is a nice enough scent if you like this style of buzzing red neon-incense, but once more, the price point is just silly for what it is and there are far better versions of the same concept available elsewhere. [Emphasis to other perfume names or brands added by me.]
I’m surprised neither Deadidol nor Mark Behnke mentioned the vinegar, but the only other review on Fragrantica at this time definitely brings it up. “Globus Pallidus” experienced a “meaty” scent with a “funk” that was contrasted by “sharply piercing” balsamic vinegar. His overall impression seems to have been one of “decay.” His evocative review reads in large part:
What an interesting scent! Trying not to pay attention to the name and marketing mumbo jumbo, I still couldn’t help but find it thoroughly… meaty. The savoury note is reminiscent of the one in Tom Ford’s Noir de Noir and Black Orchid. It feels raw, but not exactly fresh. It is supported by dried fruits gone slightly bad, as if stored in a humid place. That ‘funk’ is contrasted by balsamico vinegar, sharply piercing through. All in all, it gives the impression of something (that used to be) edible that you sure as hell don’t want to eat.
Having Bas de Soie on the other arm gave a wonderfully bizarre impression: that of formaldehyde jars, pressed flowers, stuffed animals. All fur, feathers, scales, skin, chemicals. Decay that has been slowed but not stopped. Like a poorly lit, gloomy study of a scientist from the 19th century.
I understand exactly what he means and why. It’s the powdery, ancien regime floralcy in conjunction with the earthy and occasionally meaty side of cloves that I experienced as well, not to mention the patchouli (that was such a big part of the Black Orchid he brings up), Cannibale’s various forms of muskiness and dustiness, the animalic quality of the castoreum leather, the ambergris’ humid warmth, and the abrasive chemical clamour of the synthetics in its base.
I have to confess that were it not for those chemicals and “the intrusive woodsmoke,” as Mark Behnke put it, I wouldn’t mind Cannibale so much. On the one hand, it’s the most complex and interesting of the new Section d’Or releases. Plus, as a die-hard “Patch Head,” I love the multi-faceted nature of the note here, and I’m a huge fan of having so much of it in addition to ambergris, labdanum, cloves, resins, and incense. On the other hand, that merely created the intense resemblance to Serge Noire. And the fact that Cannibale was almost 7 straight hours of Serge Noire, Mona di Orio’s Cuir, and any number of smoky amber fragrances is hardly a sign of originality. To use a bad pun, it’s essentially cannibalizing Serge Lutens’ own portfolio with that of others.
Plus, all of those fragrances are significantly cheaper than Cannibale. Mona di Orio’s Cuir is $195, and you can pick up Serge Noire and Ambre Sultan for $60-$90 each on various discount sites. The trio together are still less than Cannibale which costs $600 for 50 ml. But that isn’t the only negative here.
By the time you get to the later stages where Mona di Orio’s Cuir is mixed with the “intrusive,” abrasive, and heavy aromachemicals… well, I can see precisely why “Deadidol” brought up Cuir Garamante, PG’s intensely dark, smoky, Norlimbanol leather. Far more troubling was his comparison to “about 30 Montales.” Do you really want your $600 luxury fragrance to make you smell like you’re wearing something from Montale? I don’t. God, no, I don’t want to wear anything resembling that brand. When I tried my first Montale, Aoud Lime, I thought it was the olfactory equivalent of Chernobyl. I mean it. Chernobyl in a bottle. (I can barely type the words for all my shudders.) I’ve never gotten over that horrifying fragrance which will forever be the absolute worst thing that I’ve ever tried, the vilest and most traumatic creation on earth, but other Montales haven’t exactly led to a rhapsody of joy, either. (Ahem.) I personally don’t think that Cannibale is too close to Montale levels, but the fact that a very experienced, highly respected perfumista like “Deadidol” could even make that comparison… well, it’s not a good sign, to put it mildly.
Is this what we’ve come to? The once incomparable Serge Lutens is now comparable either to various combinations of old fragrances from Mona di Orio, Tom Ford, Annick Goutal, Oriza, and Parfumerie Generale, or, at the furthest extreme, to Montale? It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, particularly when the fragrance costs $600 for a mere 50 ml. Most of all, though, it’s a really troubling portent for the future. I hope someone there changes course fast. Much as I hate to say it, maybe it’s time for someone other than Christopher Sheldrake? Perhaps a new nose with fresh ideas will bring out a different side to Uncle Serge? Something needs to be done to stem the tide and to revitalize the brand, and I think it needs to be done soon.