“Snow” is a word that comes up quite a bit in Serge Lutens‘ descriptions for La Religieuse, his latest release that debuted in Paris at the start of February and one that is officially characterized as a jasmine fragrance. I think the word “snow” is absolutely accurate in describing the opening of the scent with its icy and “crystalline” aesthetic, but La Religieuse was hardly the jasmine soliflore that I expected. It was nothing like A La Nuit, Sarrasins, or any other jasmine soliflore that I’ve tried for that matter. Frankly, if I smelt it blindly, the word “jasmine” would be at the very end of my list of descriptors. Instead, the name “De Profundis” would come up within minutes, which might make some of you very happy indeed.
La Religieuse was created by Serge Lutens and his usual collaborator, Christopher Sheldrake. In French, “La Religieuse” has two meanings: either “the nun,” or a French pastry (a round, eclair-like, custard-filled, chocolate-covered choux pastry in two tiers). The perfume version is one of the black-labeled Haute Concentration eau de parfums, like L’Orpheline, Fille en Aiguilles and Santal Majuscule, and thus priced slightly higher than the regular export line.
On the Lutens website, La Religieuse is described in a very generalized, cursory fashion:
Deliver us from Good! Jasmine petals are as white as snow.
Black is my religion.
There is also a video set in a snow-covered convent or monastery in which Serge Lutens recounts an allegorical tale (with English subtitles), but it adds almost nothing to the description of the scent except to re-emphasize the metaphoric “snow,” placed within quotes. For those of you who are huge fans of Oncle Serge, though, here’s the video:
However, in an interview with the Madame Figaro section of France’s Le Figaro, Serge Lutens briefly talks about La Religieuse, essentially saying (in translation):
It is a pure and crystalline jasmine with a civet background, more animal, say the experts. For me, it embodies the purity and sensual of femininity. One that haunts me forever. An icy woman who burns her fingers. Good and evil at the same time. White like the snow.
In terms of notes, it’s a guessing game as always, as Oncle Serge never gives out specifics, but numerous sites and several retailers state the note list is:
jasmine, incense, civet and musk.
That list clearly gives the impression that La Religieuse is a jasmine fragrance first and foremost, but I smell very different things with notes that far overshadow the jasmine a good portion of the time. Based on what appears on my skin, my guess list would be something like this:
Chrysanthemum, Casablanca lily, something citrusy, civet, green notes, possibly violet, clean musk, possibly hyacinth, Cashmeran wood, and jasmine.
Part of the problem in trying to pull out the notes — and, indeed, in describing most of La Religieuse as a whole — is that the vast majority of notes are essentially blurred past all recognition on my skin. Furthermore, the few which are very clear end up varying in their strength and prominence from one of my arms to the other. Basically, there were two notes were extremely distinct on one arm and in two tests, because they almost screamed from the rooftops at a high-pitch decibel. They were: a bergamot-like note that verged on a very acidic lemon encased in ice, and an extremely synthetic, sharp civet that was so scratchy at times that I actually did think of a nun’s severe habit. On my other arm, however, they were better behaved and more balanced.
On both arms, however, they were easier to detect than the specific florals used in the scent. For the most part, La Religieuse smelt of De Profundis-like chrysanthemums and Casablanca lilies on my skin. Sometimes, one flower was more prominent than the other; most of the time they were fully fused together; and all of the time, they overwhelmed the purported jasmine. The latter was barely noticeable, and most certainly not for the first 90 minutes. Instead, on one arm (the same one with the acidic bergamot), there were definite streaks of an amorphous violet ionone that smelled lemony, very green, and somewhat metallic. On occasion, there were also whiffs of something green that continuously made me think of hyacinths, though it was also abstract in smell and never like real hyacinth blooms with their strong sweetness, rich depth, or floral liquidity.
Quite frequently, however, all the flowers were blurred into a singular mass, and felt faceless, nameless, and shapeless on my skin, especially once the first 90 minutes had passed. Identification became even harder because the floral accords are covered by a thick blanket of “snow.” In a clever perfumer’s sleight of hand by Christopher Sheldrake, he’s somehow brought out an icy quality to all the flowers — that “crystalline” profile referenced by Monsieur Lutens in his Figaro interview — and the end result feels as though you’ve been blasted by the cold depths of a florist’s freezer or fridge. In short, La Religieuse feels like a mixed floral bouquet whose predominant trait in the first hour is iciness and whiteness, more than any one particular flower. But it is certainly not a jasmine soliflore laced with smoky incense on my skin.
I’ve managed to test La Religieuse a few times since I got my sample (it doesn’t last for a huge amount of time on my skin), and the general parameters are always the same. This is not a complex scent that twists and morphs with great frequency, like some of the revolutionary Serge Lutens masterpieces in the Paris Bell Jar line. It is largely a simple, linear scent without great clarity of notes or distinctive stages. The main thing that separates one test from the other is in the prominence and volume of certain notes. Sometimes, amidst the perpetual fog that is La Religieuse — and I mean fog in almost every possible metaphoric, symbolic sense possible — sometimes, a few of the notes shrieked at me. It depended solely on how much of the fragrance I applied and on which arm. That is a question of degree, but the general parameters remained largely consistent. Part I: an icy fog of amorphous floralcy dominated mostly by white lilies and chrysanthemum that are infused with varying degrees of a lemony citrus, civet, white-green notes, and clean white musk. Part II: blurry, generally white, abstract florals with a creamy, Cashmerean undertone and a touch of sweetness.
It is a fragrance with some kinship to Serge Lutens’ De Profundis, a scent that I never found to be melancholy despite its official description but, rather, an uplifting, delicate, haunting, utterly evocative beauty that always calls to mind a cool Spring morning in a floral meadow. However, I don’t think La Religieuse is as beautiful, complex, evocative, and masterful as De Profundis. It’s definitely not as nuanced, and is sometimes not as well-balanced or harmonious, either. In truth, I only like La Religieuse during those brief moments when it reminds me of De Profundis and, even then, my feelings are strongly tempered by the issue of the acidic citrus and the synthetic, angular civet. In one of my tests, both notes stuck out at a sharp 90-degree angle from everything else, and to such a degree and with such abrasive harshness that I kept thinking about a nun’s scratchy, severe habit (the old-style clothing).
It helps you to have specifics about La Religieuse’s development, I’ll share the details of one of my tests. The perfume opens on my skin with a sour citrus note infused with white lilies and chrysanthemums, green notes, and possibly violets, all shot through with very synthetic civet that feels sharp and with similarly sharp white musk. The last two elements are very distinct, and as abrasively scratchy as steel wool. (A continuation of the theme in Laine de Verre?) In contrast to the citrus/civet, the florals feel blurred and out of focus, resulting in a scent that feels primarily like the amorphous bouquet you get when you open a florist’s fridge.
During the first hour, La Religieuse gets icier with every passing minute, blocking out the shape of the individual flowers. The mental image changes from a florist’s fridge to Spring flowers buried under snow, which is rather apt for large parts of the United States right now. The difference is that this large pile of snow is sprayed with sour notes whose acidity sometimes, on one arm, actually verges on ammoniac pee. The civet is never properly animalic or skanky, but something about its interaction with that awful, sour lemon is simply deadly on my skin in the first 60-90 minutes. Thankfully, its ammonia-like aroma isn’t major and it also doesn’t show up in every test, but I’m not enthused on the acidic citrus/lemon that is common to all my tests. I’m also not keen on the violet-like note which also has a lemon-like nuance under all the greenness. And, as always, the clean, white musk is my nemesis — a note I loathe in generally but particularly when it is as sharp and pointed as it is here.
I think one of the problems is that La Religieuse’s opening lacks sufficient sweetness to counteract and dilute some of the sharper notes. Flowers like jasmine and white lilies have an obvious streak of sweetness that can be amped up or weakened in a scent, depending on a perfumer’s vision. In Serge Lutens’ Un Lys, the namesake lily was almost syrupy; in A La Nuit, the jasmine was concentrated to its brightest, deepest, and, yes, sweetest essence; in the mixed-bag Nuit de Cellophane, the peony, osmanthus, and other flowers were bipolar in how they manifested themselves on my skin, but excessively sweet fruitiness was definitely one extreme. Even De Profundis and La Fille de Berlin — two scents whose floralcy bears varying degrees of coolness — even their flowers had a certain degree of innate sweetness. But it feels very different in La Religieuse, because the flowers are more severe, perhaps because of the “snow” has rendered them so icy, or perhaps because the lemon/civet combination is so strong.
Time and distance help La Religieuse. Distance helps make the scent feel less sharp, minimizing the awful lemon and cheap civet, though the white musk continues to blare away. Time leads to a softening of the notes. It’s the first hour which is truly the worst, and improvement begins slowly at the start of the second hour when the fragrance turns warmer and the first glimmer of something creamy stirs in the base. Like almost everything else to do with La Religieuse, it is hard to distinguish at first but, eventually, by the 3rd hour, you can make out the shape of Cashmerean. It lends a softness to the scent that isn’t exactly like the Shea butter which it sometimes wafts and isn’t exactly like beige woods, but something in-between. It is the thinnest of layers in the base, but it helps.
The end of the first hour brings about other changes as well. Whatever minimal shape the chrysanthemum or lilies occasionally demonstrated, whatever clarity there was in the floral notes, it completely fades away as all the flowers blur into one. In one test, one arm suddenly started to waft away the tiniest tendrils of jasmine. Finally! Green, barely sweet, fresh, generally cool, but clearly jasmine nonetheless, even if it was merely the tiniest dash that quickly melted into the rest of the bouquet. Unfortunately, in the majority of my tests, the jasmine was barely distinguishable as a clear, individual, and separate note. All that really happens is that the bouquet takes on a white-hued sweetness that, once in a blue moon, smells like it has a touch of jasmine but generally smells mostly of white lilies.
Other developments are more consistent, regardless of arm and in all my tests. 90 minutes in, the hideous citrus and synthetic civet finally retreat to the sidelines, the clean musk becomes quieter, and La Religieuse turns into a creamy floral that hovers just an inch or less above the skin. It no longer has any whiffs of something resembling violets, no longer feels icy cold, and is better balanced. Over the next hour, the white musk slowly recedes to the sidelines to join the awful lemon and civet, and a vague suggestion of something possibly woody takes its place. It’s hard to tell because everything is so shapeless. For the most part, La Religieuse is merely a hazy floral with white-ish hues, some sweetness, and an undertone of creaminess. It occasionally wafts out lilies, and a touch of chrysanthemum, but the jasmine has gone into the witness protection program.
And that’s truly it for the scent. From the 2.5 hour mark until its very end, La Religieuse is merely a blurry, amorphous floral. Nothing else happens except an increased softness in the notes, as well as the perfume’s body and its overall projection. Regardless, it is a pretty scent whose creamy softness is lovely, and I thoroughly enjoyed the drydown. I can’t say that I find it interesting or beautiful; I’m not gushing over it; I didn’t find it compulsively sniffable; but it was very nice. The best word to describe it is “pretty.”
As a whole, La Religieuse is consistently a very airy, delicate, demure scent on my skin with very little projection and absolutely no scent trails, even when I applied quite a bit. I find it rather confusing and bewildering that Serge Lutens classifies this as an “Haute Concentration” fragrance because I’m not sure how it could get softer, thinner, or weaker. Certainly, a good number of his regular, non-concentrated scents are stronger and more robust on my skin. So is De Profundis, though that is hardly an intense powerhouse with nuclear force.
Still, La Religieuse seems extra-soft in terms of projection, and the longevity is merely average. My skin often has problems with longevity, particularly for pure floral soliflores which it eats with frustrating speed, but projection and sillage are rarely an issue. Using 3 massive smears that essentially rendered a patch of my forearm completely wet, and that was roughly equal to 3 big sprays from an actual bottle, La Religieuse initially opened with 3 inches. The perfume felt very thin in body, almost translucent at times. After 90 minutes, La Religieuse lay roughly 0.5 inches above the skin, and became a skin scent just under 3.25 hours. All in all, it lasted just a hair above 7.5 hours. When I used a more normal quantity (2 good smears equal to 2 spritzes from a bottle), La Religieuse opened with 2-3 inches of projection, dropped to 1 inch after 30 minutes, and then roughly 0.5 inches before the first hour was over. It became a skin scent 2.5 hours into its development, and I had to bring my nose right to my arm to detect it. It lasted 6.5 hours in total. Using an amount equal to 1 spray from a bottle, the scent was incredibly weak on me and only lasted 4.75 hours.
I have very mixed feelings about La Religieuse. On the one hand, I’m relieved that Oncle Serge is no longer giving us fiber-glass florals with synthetic shards of glass, steely metallics, and/or laundry-detergent soapiness. (No, I still haven’t gotten over Laine de Verre and La Vierge de Fer. I doubt I will for a while.) La Religieuse almost gives me hope that Oncle Serge might be returning to the style that made De Profundis so wonderful, only some of the notes here aren’t my personal cup of tea, thereby rendering the scent more an issue of tastes.
On the other hand, though, I really don’t think La Religieuse is a brilliant scent, not by Serge Lutens standards. It’s not a bad fragrance at all and, at times during its drydown from the 4th hour onwards, it’s almost quite pretty. After its icy start, it’s a nice white-green, cold floral with a creamy undertone and a quiet elegance. Really, as basic, uncomplicated, amorphous, faceless florals go, it’s quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I expect more from Oncle Serge, especially at $150 for a 50 ml bottle of fragrance that is generally quite discreet on me with iffy longevity. Frankly, the faint, fleeting whispers of De Profundis are the only thing that make La Religieuse interesting or appealing to me but, the rest of the time, it lacks real personality and distinctiveness (except for the iciness of the start). Does it even feel like a Serge Lutens fragrance when taken as a whole? Sometimes. If I focus hard and if I think back on his catalogue of florals, then, yes, sometimes. Maybe. Well, parts of it do, I suppose. Could I have picked this out as a Lutens fragrance if I had smelled it blindly in a row of floral scents from other houses? I’m honestly not sure. A good part of me doesn’t think so.
On Fragrantica, there are a few reviews already for La Religieuse, and many are quite positive. For one person, the perfume resembled the choux/puff pastry by the same name mixed with jasmine but, for the vast majority, it was a non-foodie scent with jasmine, some other flowers, and civet. Several people talk about an incense note that they seem to have detected. One poster called La Religieuse unisex in nature because it was “a kind of modern interpretation of a soapy floral.. Don’t expect the lush creamy jasmin, no it is the more fresh, crispy, grassy jasmin interpretation with good sillage and average longevity.” Someone else shared the view of “green freshness,” though she found La Religieuse to have a “sweet/sharp accord” as well.
One commentator found “a whisper of De Profundis,” along with “other whispers … of jasmine, incence, musk (and as one reviewer noted) mimosa, honeysuckle and narcissus.” She added: “La Religieuse transported me to a little church in the French countryside, then to a flower market full of white flowers, then I ended up window shopping for cashmere on a very expensive street in Paris.”
There is very lukewarm, disappointed reaction, however, from one person, “Meama,” who writes:
I don’t know exactly what to think about this one. A very simple jasmine soliflore, freshly cut, supported by incense and musk. It’s so simple that it’s disappointing but it’s good also in it’s own restraint way..
I seem to be the only person to experience lilies, though the De Profundis mention by one poster suggests she detected chrysanthemums, too. For Persolaise, there were other flowers entirely: “honeysuckle, narcissus and mimosa.”
His review is mostly about the Lutensian narrative thread between earlier scents, La Religieuse, and L’Orpheline with discussions of innocence, gardens, sin, and some other allegorical stuff. In terms of how La Religieuse actually smells, though, he writes:
On an objective level, the scent is a soapy floral. The pre-release material has suggested that its main note is jasmine – and white petals are definitely present – but it’s years away from the grandiloquent voice of A La Nuit and Sarrasins. In fact, the animalic aspect of the jasmine seems to have been eradicated completely, to be replaced by much more quietly-spoken blooms, namely honeysuckle, narcissus and mimosa. The wispy bouquet is tied with a translucent ribbon of grass and wrapped in a familiar-smelling embrace of velvety musks. It doesn’t sound hard-hitting and indeed, it isn’t. […][It has] breath-on-the-wind elusiveness. […][¶]
… for all its verdant innocence, the perfume isn’t always easy to read. Its minimalist aesthetic brings with it a reluctance to reveal all its secrets. Yes, the floral line running through its centre is lucid, but it’s punctuated by several perplexing, decidedly synthetic accents. These range from almost-unnoticeable incense notes, to a barely-there ghost of blackcurrants, and even, brace yourselves, an intimation of Johnson’s baby shampoo, circa 1985.
We obviously had very different experiences, because the civet was quite noticeable on me, though I completely agree that it was never actually, properly animalic in nature and that it was one of the perfume’s many synthetic notes. I would have preferred it if the civet had been animalic, instead of mere sourness with an occasional ammonia-like vibe. As for the incense, it was even less evident on me than it was on him — to the point of nonexistence, actually. And I’m relieved I never detected any soap whatsoever, though the clean white musk undoubtedly contributed to the “snowy” coldness that I’ve talked about so much.
Where I completely agree with Persolaise is on the “decidedly synthetic accents,” the whiteness of the scent, its wispy quality, its minimalism, and just how hard the perfume is to dissect beyond the obvious “floral line running through it.” I see the difficulty as stemming, in part, from the perfume’s out-of-focus blurriness and from its overly basic simplicity but, unlike Persolaise, I’m unwilling to take a broad, theoretical, or narrative view of the scent in order to find it “more interesting.” I prefer to look at it here and now, in its specifics, so I’m afraid I don’t find La Religieuse to be very interesting at all.
It is, however, a pleasant scent at times, and one whose drydown is both pretty and enjoyable. On a unreservedly positive note, I love the purple-grey colour of the liquid.