When he greets me in the suite of the luxury hotel where he is meeting journalists for presentation of L’Orpheline (“The Orphan”), the first thing Serge Lutens tells me is that I have the same name as his mother (which I already knew, since he’d slipped it into a written Q/A we’d done some time ago). We met when I was writing my book, so I know not to expect this session to be an interview, but rather a meandering conversation rife with dodges, ellipses and snippets of confession.
Over the two hours we spent together, we strayed into film (Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg), poetry (Francis Ponge), history (Lutens was born during the German Occupation in France) and psychoanalysis. Here are the excerpts of our conversation, edited for clarity, which have some bearing on perfume. Or rather, on the way perfume comes about for Serge Lutens…
Since the press invitation for L’Orpheline alludes to Orpheus, the poet who brings his beloved back from the realm of the dead through the power of his song, only to lose her again by turning back to look at her, it is with Orpheus that we begin…
Serge Lutens: Orpheus, Orpheus… We know he was the ultimate poet: he spoke to stones and stones answered him. He spoke to animals, he spoke to the dead. He brought back Eurydice from Hades… And Orpheus is the etymological root of orphan. Even to hear, I loved the sound of “l’orpheline”. I thought it was something delicate, fragile. And as it was something I wanted to demonstrate, inside this fragrance…
Denyse Beaulieu: What did you want to demonstrate?
S.L.: Oh, not demonstrate. I’m not someone who can prove things… That’s not it, but it’s always something I find out as I go forward into a perfume. It isn’t something I decide to do, but you know, we’re made up of periods. La vierge de fer was about the religion of iron, which is to say a lethal willpower. La Fille de Berlin was my story with the color red, fairly violent… All that resurfaced.
L’Orpheline is something else. L’Orpheline is the moment… I’ve said, it is this territory of ourselves we give up, which implies a choice in life. We all make that choice: when we’re seven, even before seven, we choose. We choose one side or the other of someone within ourselves, which will become our self, which will be our grounding, our material.
At seven years old, a girl will usual go towards her father… A boy will naturally gravitate towards his mother, that’s more or less how the world establishes itself. Now, when you choose the mother as strongly as I did, of course it’s extremely dangerously, because it’s an incredible imbalance… The fact of having an adulterous mother, the fact of being a bastard, the fact that my father didn’t recognize me, refused to recognize me initially, that he married my mother two years later: she experience all that, of course, and I experienced it even though I wasn’t fully aware of it.
D.B.: Children are aware.
S.L.: Because an anxious mother, that’s an anxious child. So this choice, if you will, that we make of one being or another at the outset of our lives, because deep down there’s only one choice, though we don’t know it’s a choice… Because you’re a child, you don’t understand you’re choosing. You don’t call it a choice. What’s a choice, anyway? I’ll tell you: in fact, you’re being stalked by wild beasts, there’s a flooded river in front of you and on the other side, there’s a quiet shore. What do you do? You cross the flooded river anyway.
D.B.: Was it the name or the olfactory note that led you to conceive L’Orpheline?
S.L.: No, it was conceive by a period of myself. To put it another way, I think that when you relinquish a part of yourself, that share of yourself that is orphaned, there’s a point in your life when you can’t sustain that choice. If there’s only one choice, you fall. And that lead to depression. It’s unavoidable. If you don’t turn back to the other side, if you can’t join both sides – which is very hard, mind you! --, well, you lose your balance.
So of course you don’t want to fall, and all my life, I feel that’s how I’ve gone forward, in a precarious balance. I’ve realized that everything was very, very, very fragile around me, that I was very fragile myself, that I had to be very careful not to fall, but that I had a desire to fall at the same time. The desire to fall and at the same time, a need to go forward. So it’s all tied together: there is an inclination for failure in me, there is an inclination for success, and I think they’re totally conjoined. You want to go forward, but going forward… I think all the audacities I’ve had, I get them from my inclination for failure, because I don’t give a damn. Deep down, I don’t give a damn.
D.B.: You once told me about being alone in your room with your books… It seems you also aspire to a monastic life.
S.L.: I’m not alone… Well, I’m alone in my room, with my books! Sometimes, this solitude is very rich, very full, very, very interesting. And sometimes, it’s sordid: the same goes for everyone. Some solitudes are wonderful and others are awful. Solitude is just a word. There are many solitudes. So some solitudes are fabulous: it’s creative, it’s magnificent. Above all, you don’t want anyone to interfere. And then there are other moments when it’s nothingness, the being and nothingness.
D.B.: But you still have your books…
S.L.: If you can read, because there are moments when you can’t even read. I think I’m going through it. That’s all. So that period, there you go, that’s what it is: it’s this Orpheline. It comes out from Vierge de fer, it comes out from Fille de Berlin. But then, all of a sudden, it’s something else. The fragility returns: in some way, it is descended from Serge Noire.
D.B.: When I smelled L’Orpheline, I jotted down this note: “It’s a slightly quivering perfume”…
S.L.: Yes, I like that. Tentative, quivering… A bit febrile…
D.B.: Like flesh quivering when it’s touched.
This is part one of a three-part interview. The second and third installments will be posted on Wednesday 15 and Friday 17 October.