Bapteme du Feu, the latest release from Serge Lutens, is not a scent that lends itself to easy characterisation. What I can say is that it’s different, puts a sometimes bizarre twist on traditional fragrance categories or genres, and that the old Lutens eccentricity and creative twists are back. Wearing it left me flummoxed at times, highly ambivalent at other times, but at least it feels like a Lutens, for better or for worse.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself spending a day in an old souk, perhaps in Marrakesh or Tripoli. The air is thick with heat, so you buy a refreshing drink of blood oranges infused with Angostura aromatic bitters, decorated with candied orange peels and sprigs of fresh herbs. One vendor catches your eye, his tables piled high with leathery black figs, the fattest, stickiest Medjool dates, syrup-laden Middle Eastern sweets, and honeyed desserts. Large sacks of colourful spices lie on the ground, next to ones filled with bitter Bay Leaf, oregano, and other green herbs. Nearby, bottles of rich labdanum amber and leathery Tolu balsam resins surround gleaming silver trays filled with cinnamon-scented, hard, dark benzoin resinoids.
An enterprising chap, the seller even offers you cooked food in case you missed your lunch, large bowls filled with curries or banana-leaf savory dishes straight from his Indian wife’s kitchen. You stand before his wares, sipping your drink of herbal Angostura bitters and orange, nibbling on a dried date as you contemplate ordering either a main meal or dessert. Suddenly, a vendor on a bike comes out of nowhere and crashes into you. The barrel of immortelle in the back goes flying into the air, crashing into the tables, throwing everything to the ground, and releasing a flood of sticky syrup over them all. Apologizing profusely, the vendor offers to cook you dinner in his kitchen. Hours later, he replaces your ruined clothing with an outfit made of soft Tuareg leather, but the resins from the accident still coat your skin, encasing you in a cloud of amber infused with spices, sweet myrrh, and sweetness.
A song of fire and ice, to use George R.R. Martin’s words, is one way to describe Sarrasins, Serge Lutens‘ legendary animalic jasmine bell jar fragrance, but it is only the start. White flowers are stained purple, then given a fiery (carnation) bite that is also icy at the same time. Sweetness and a touch of girlie femininity come with a snarled lip and haughty contempt, cloaked in tough black (castoreum) leather. Delicate powder is juxtaposed with feral civet. Thick purple grapes and pink bubblegum that evoke an almost Andy Warhol-style of Pop Art run through flowers that bear a gothic feel at times. All of it, somehow, unexpectedly, works well together, and all of it repeatedly makes me think of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones and the progression of her character.
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.