lundi 27 juin 2011

“As long as I am alive, so is my death”: an epistolary interview with Serge Lutens

Black humour has always been part of Serge Lutens’ modus operandi: with his two new fragrances, Vitriol d’oeillet and De Profundis, it takes on an ultraviolet tinge – both fragrances are in fact purple – with overt allusions to death. Could it be a stance on the purported dangers of fragrance? When I met him for my book, Serge Lutens did quip that he was tempted to put “Perfuming kills” on his boxes, just like the tobacco industry puts health warnings in cigarette packs… Which is, at any rate, better than proclaiming the death of perfumery.

As we’d done with Boxeuses, Serge Lutens was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in writing. But as you may have noticed in previous interviews of his, Mr. Lutens favours puns, most of which are impossible to translate, so I’ve decided to add footnotes to this one. They may betray his deliberately cryptic, allusive writing style, but at least, they show there’s method to his madness; a surrealistic associative process.
That said, the new additions to the Lutens opus are so densely packed with oblique allusions they would seem to require as many footnotes as a Penguin reader. Thus, the press release for Vitriol d’Oeillet alludes to the carnations worn by English dandies, sliding from there to Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On top of which the word “oeillet” is a semantic mine in and of itself: it comes from “little eye” and means “carnation”, “eyelet” and, though it isn’t the subtext here, a certain bodily orifice… As for vitriol, the old world for sulphuric acid, it is an alchemical acronym which I quote in my questions.
De Profundis, “From the Depths” in Latin, yields an even richer seam. It draws its name from the first words of Psalm 130, a prayer for the dead. “De Profundis Clamavi” (“From the depths I call”) is also the title of a poem by Baudelaire; Oscar Wilde entitled “De Profundis” the letter he wrote from jail to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas.It is also the title of several pieces of religious music.
In other words, those new bottles are filled to the brim with words and notes... If they burst, don't touch: glass shards cut.

Denyse Beaulieu: Baudelaire, Wilde and the Catholic ritual for De Profundis; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and, again, Wilde for Vitriol d’Oeillet: is it now literature that inspires you?

Serge Lutens: It is my spine[1], which, as you know, features a few thorns. It is the evocation that a perfume supposes and proposes which speaks to me, or which I read in it. From the outset, my perfumery has always sprung from this source. I will only quote the most striking examples, those that inscribe themselves, as would a book or a film, as much by their name as by their fragrance: "Tubéreuse criminelle", "Serge noire", "Cuir mauresque", "Sa majesté la rose", "Sarrasins"... If essences were merely perfume, what would it conjure for us? A product stacked on a shelf, and to add insult to injury, put on the market!

D.B.: Carnations are not only picked from dandies’ lapels: they are also the heart of many perfume classics, such as Poivre and Bellodgia by Caron, L’Air du temps and Opium. Did you think of them, as you though of the classic era of couture with Bas de Soie?

S.L.: “Œillet” [carnation] also has a homonym designating a perforation through which you thread a lace[2] and if you’re on a mountain road, it can take a lot of dangerous twists![3]
As for the examples you quote, I never knew that carnation was part of these compositions: if so, it is as discreet as the horizon on a foggy day. That said…

D.B.: Vitriol: “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificandoque Invenies Occultum Lapidem”, or “Visit the interior of the earth and by rectification discover the hidden stone”. Would your vitriol be the alchemist’s formula for finding the Philosopher’s Stone?

S.L.: I don’t have that ambition and if I find something that “philosophizes” me, it would be in a book rather than a perfume.

D.B.: Is your carnation really as mean as all that? I find it quite soft.

S.L.: It’s extremely peppery. What interested me in this vitriol was to dis-figure it. The ingredients themselves led me to the name. The etymology of giroflée [wallflower] conjures gifle [slap][4]; we bind ourselves to it with clove[5] and finally – but that’s my addition – Cayenne pepper: you have to end up somewhere some day![6]

D.B.: De Profundis triggers a vague unease in certain people… Have you deliberately sought out this sweetish, slightly mortiferous effect?

S.L.: The chrysanthemum is tinged with bitterness. I added, as is sometimes mentioned, a hazelnut flavour over a superb incense. If “De Profundis” triggers unease, I am delighted! It would have been a pity to let this flower waste away in cemeteries, wouldn’t it?

D.B.: Death, death, always death… Are you thumbing your nose at a taboo or reminding us that perfume, at the outset, was used to embalm the dead?

S.L.: But, my dearest Denyse – I will use an answer I could have made, post-mortem, to my mother who has the same name as you: “As long as I am alive, so is my death, and I can assure you that it is in great shape.” As for serving a God, leave me my lucky star because if it comes to that, I’ll light it up myself.

D.B. : After death, the great beyond… Is the next perfume Heaven, Hell or Purgatory?

S.L. : Il "mord" j'espère, mais, pas trop fort ![7]

Vitriol d’œillet will be available as of July 1st at the Palais-Royal and launched internationally in September. De Profundis is a Palais-Royal exclusive and will come out in October as well.

Stay tuned for the next post, my review of Vitriol d’oeillet, which will feature a sample draw.


[1] In French, the word for “spine” is épine dorsale; épine also means “thorn”.

[2] Oeillet, a diminutive of oeil, “eye”, means both “carnation” and “eyelet”.

[3] A pun on lacet, which means both “lace” and “hairpin bend”.

[4] There is an old French expression, la giroflée à cinq feuilles, “the five-leaf wallflower”, which means the trace of five fingers left by a slap. The flower itself was named giroflée because its smell is reminiscent of clove, which comes from the giroflier. Etymologically, it is linked to the Italian for carnation, garofano.

[5] The French for clove is clou de girofle: clou means “nail” (the type you hit with a hammer). The word Serge Lutens uses for “bind” is s’attacher, which means to bind oneself, but also to become emotionally attached to something.

[6] One of the most infamous French penitentiaries was in Cayenne, in French Guyana. It is a recurring motif in Serge Lutens’ favourite author, the genius thief-turned-writer Jean Genet.

[7] Ok, I gave up on translating: literally, the sentence means “It bites, I hope, but not too hard!”, the pun being on mord (“bites”), a homophone of mort (“death”).

32 commentaires:

  1. Fascinating interview, Denyse. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of trying to decipher Monsieur Lutens at his most oblique. And I am looking forward to trying both of these new fragrances, particularly De Profundis. Chrysanthemum seems to loom large in the symbolic vocabulary of Chinese culture.

  2. Thank you for the most interesting article. Serge Lutens's interviews often sound like Cocteau Twins lyrics: no one is certain what exactly he means to say but in some strange way they are speak from a very special place.

    Vitriol d' Oeillet has a some very interesting associations for me in particular, coming from Greece:
    In the 60's there were several passion crimes in Greece in which betrayed women would stalk their lovers or they women they were left for and they would throw sulfuric acid (vitriol) on their faces. Quite a passionate demonstration of sentimental distress. This is the only context where the word "vitriol" is used in greek so the association with betrayed passion is very strong.
    Also in Greek the words oeillet/carnation and clou de girofle/ clove are one and the same. So you are never sure of whether one speaks of one or the other when referred to their scent.

  3. Jarvis, I haven't looked into the symbolism of chrysanthemum in China (and Japan) yet, as I'm waiting a bit closer to launch to review De Profundis, but it's fascinating to see how differently it comes off in the West... It's only used in funerals in France.
    As for the oblique Serge, well, that's not quite how in talks in real life obviously, but I really thinks he enjoys penning these answers.

  4. Memoryofscent, disfigurement by sulphuric acid is, tragically, still extremely common in some countries, only this time it is women who are the victims.
    Mr Lutens is aware of the reference to disfigurement since he brings it up himself in the interview, saying he wanted to dis-figure carnation, which I take to mean he wanted Christopher Sheldrake to make it less figurative.
    I understand why he would choose such a shocking name as a follow-up to Tubéreuse Criminelle, another "disfigured" flower. And though he denies he had it in mind, I think the alchemical reference suits both perfume in general and his perfumery in particular (if you've visited the Palais Royal boutique, you understand). Still, it is an extremely violent reference.
    That said, the perfume is very beautiful.

    It's interesting, what you note about carnation and clove in Greek. Clove (or rather eugenols) do enter into carnation accords, but there's more to them than that so it must be confusing.

  5. Great interview!
    Not that you do them in any other way. :)
    I'll try and read the original version although my French is not that good to catch all the nuances so thank you for the footnotes.

    And, of course, now I'm just more eager to try these. :)

  6. Thank you Ines. Lutens interviews are always a challenge to translate, and he raised the bar hugely in this one, hence the footnotes. There is a saying in Italian, "traduttore, tradittore", "translator, traitor", which applies fully here!

  7. Thanks for this intriguing interview with Serge. I think the footnotes made it really easy to read through once at face value and then again to get the nuances.

    I am practically jumping up and down anticipating Vitriol d' Oeillet. Carnation is my favourite essential oil but I haven't found a perfume yet that really captures it's depth. Can't wait for your review!

  8. Thanks a million Denyse, soooo interesting. Well done for guiding us non-French speakers so competently through SL's word maze. Now, how does one get to have dinner with him? ;-)))

  9. Tara, the scent truest to carnation e.o. is George Dodd's, which is 100% natural. V d'O is more sophisticayed and less vegetal.
    Glad the notes helped. Lots of answers would sound a bit batty without them.

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  11. Silvia, I haven't the faintest! I've only made it as far as tea. In a few years perhaps...

  12. I was speaking to an SA here in the US, and "Vitriol d'Œillet" is clearly going to be a bit of a pronunciation conundrum for both English speaking customers and SAs...

  13. I've only read the Wikipedia entry on De Profundis, but that outline of forbidden love, betrayal, stifled art and tragic death convinced me that these two funereal SLs must be his witty protest against the imprisonment and death of perfume at the hands of IFRA et al. Isn't eugenol a banned ingredient that was key to the classic carnation perfumes? ~~nozknoz

  14. Jarvis, I'll give a pronunciation key in my review, and hope my readers will spread the word...

  15. Nozknoz, that's not unlikely - Lutens didn't mince words when we spoke for the book. But I'm also thinking that he is, well, over 60 and perhaps pondering on grave subjects despite his impish sense of humour...
    As for the eugenols, they're not banned, just restricted but yes, that may have been at play in the choice of carnation.

  16. I'm kind of boggling that he claims not to know about the carnation in the fumes you mentioned. What's with that?

  17. Many thanks for the tip re George Dodd. While goggling him I found this nice article about perfumers and their inspirational gardens (featuring SL too). Thought you and others might be interested.

  18. Tommsina, I'm a bit agog as well, but as this wasn't a face to face it was impossible to pursue the topic.

  19. Tara, thanks for the link. I have the article downloaded somewhere, so of course I couldn't find it. Dodd's perfumes are some of the most disconcerting I've ever smelled...

  20. I will echo Jarvis in saying that reading these interviews with Monsieur Lutens is such a pleasure. I am a great lover of poetry and trying to interpret his answers is like trying to interpret a poem: it speaks to you on multiple levels. There are parts of his answers that seem clear and parts that make sense emotionally, rather than strictly intellectually. Very fun! Thank you for bringing this to us.

  21. Kyt, I'm glad. I think these answers are written with great care and a sense of fun, and I'm happy some of it comes through in translation, though I'm much more comfortable translating prose!

  22. Lovely interview, it really makes me want to somehow get my hands on some samples! The quote "As long as I am alive...", where does it come from? I don't think I've heard it before (or maybye only in Swedish...)

  23. Eva, I have no idea where the quote comes from, or if it *is* a quote... but it works, doesn't it?

  24. I'm sure you're right, Denyse. It seems a bit sad for a perfumer to contemplate mortality Most other artists can take comfort in the possibility of achieving immortality through their surviving works of art, but the evanescent 8th art is unlikely to afford much consolation. Even the perfumes in the Osmotheque will die someday and can no longer be resurrected when key bases or other ingredients are exhausted. But it sounds like his death is still very much alive in these intriguing perfumes! ~~nozknoz.

  25. Nozknoz, true, perfumers cannot truly hope to see their brainchildren survive them, since even within short years of creating them they might be discontinued or altered. Serge Lutens did say something about not wanting his perfumes to survive him if they were going to be altered beyond recognition, but I can't find the quote (I think it's something he and I discussed).
    Mind you, it's the same for other ephemeral arts, such as dance or theater.

  26. He certainly endeavours to maintain a certain continuity.

    One day he needs to make a perfume called Ellipsis.

    Thanks for the interview :-)

  27. Persolaise, I am now trying to find a pun on "Ellipse", but it's before my first coffee, so can't. One *would* need a pun!

  28. Nice to read an interview with explainations! Most Lutens' interviews tend to read a little schizophrenic when translated without these notes: when the play on words is lost, Serge just sounds insane.

  29. Sugandaraja, that's why I did it. Mr. Lutens actually weaves a complex poetic discourse in his written replies and it's really a pity not to at least give a hint of it in translations. Of course in real life he speaks quite normally, warmly and wittily.

  30. Merci, merci Denyse pour cet interview tout a fait fascinant! What a treat to have Serge's puns and references interrogated and unveiled in such depth ad clarity - I adore his literary epistemological style and this certainly does seem to be the most gratifying way to interview him. Encore merci, and I look forward to the next one :)

  31. Isabelle, thank you for your kind words. Serge Lutens certainly does put an immense amount of care and thought into his written answers, and it seemed a shame not to do them justice in the English translation...