Le Labo Iris 39 eau de parfum can be purchased from LuckyScent.com, where a 50-ml bottle is currently priced at $160. My review is based on a sample gifted to me by fellow perfume blogger Undina.

In Stealing Beauty, one of life’s more exquisite coming-of-age moments is given even greater poignancy as it’s viewed through the lens of a rarefied environment: one that is worldly and free-thinking while, at the same time, intimate and secluded – and secluded not just anywhere, but in one of the most breathtaking places on earth. In sentiment if (almost certainly) not in circumstance, it echoes our own experience: the heightened way we felt when it was our summer of love, so to speak. That is its magic—recalling that feeling!—and that is the magic of Le Labo Iris 39: its ability to recall the amplified sense of worldliness, uncommon beauty, and private containment that is ours at life’s ecliptic turning points.

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Perfume and a Movie: Le Labo Iris 39 and Stealing Beauty

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July 7, 2014:

Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Images: film stills of actress Liv Tyler as Lucy in the 1996, Bernardo Bertolucci-directed film Stealing Beauty (which can be found at various places on the Internet); bottle image of Le Labo Iris 39 is from Luckyscent.com.

I have a tiny dab sample of Le Labo Iris 39 that Undina gave me when I visited her in San Francisco. She’d given me lots of samples, most of which wouldn’t be sniffed until I came home, but I remember uncapping the vial of Iris 39 while sitting in her closet going through her stuff and being utterly riveted – similar to a man’s reaction at catching sight of a beautiful girl. Here’s the kind of beauty that jerks your head around, double-take fashion, as if you’d been driving down an ordinary street and suddenly spied a stunning creature completely out of her element in a small town like yours. (Unless your small town happens to be a romantic village in the South of France or the scenic hills of Tuscany). I’ve uncapped this vial quite a few times in the past couple months, and my reaction is always the same, so I was surprised by mini-reviews at LuckyScent, where several people claimed they couldn’t deal with the top notes of Iris 39. To me, its top notes are utterly arresting – so floral and green and cosmetic that this scent strikes me as one of the most überly feminine perfumes I’ve ever smelled, and yet it’s a very specific vision of beauty: the green notes, achieved in part by lime, are refreshingly energetic and youthful (in the dewy and radiant sense of the word), while the iris accord makes it smell as if it has a cosmopolitan chic-ness and sense of reserve that might seem in contrast to the former description. I sniff it and instantly see the actress Liv Tyler playing the role of Lucy in the 1996, Bernardo Bertolucci-directed film, Stealing Beauty.

Remember that film? You’re not alone if you don’t. According to Wikipedia, it met with mixed reviews and has only a 53% rating at the movie database Rotten Tomatoes, which I mention because I have the same reaction to Stealing Beauty as I have to the perfume that reminds me of it. I find it so exquisitely lovely in every regard (meaning, in ways that go beyond the film’s lush scenery) that I can’t understand a person not liking it. How can that be possible? I want to say – and on the heels of saying so, convince myself that it’s necessary for me to couple it to a perfume review aimed at converting other people into loving it and, by extension, into loving Le Labo Iris 39, too.

And in truth, doing so needn’t be a wordy enterprise, because Stealing Beauty and Le Labo Iris 39 have this in common: they are not grandly unfolding affairs. Both have a decided sense of elevated beauty and lushness about them that becomes immediately apparent (there is no prelude or prologue or waiting around for effervescent top notes to burn off) and yet there is something svelte about their storylines that makes the audience (the viewer, the wearer) more acutely aware of their beauty. When watching Stealing Beauty, the story line might be slim but it’s not flimsy: it’s a coming-of-age recollection of that one perfect, almost mystical summer when a beautiful girl is on the cusp of womanhood, divining its mysteries and entering its fold. Watching Lucy, you become Lucy – you are reminded of that line from Shakespeare, “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date” – and you understand that you are watching a moment captured from the narrative of time and held in suspension, like a jewel plucked from a tiara and held admiringly in one’s hand, separate from life’s other crowning achievements.

In the film, Liv Tyler plays an American teenager named Lucy who is visiting the Tuscan villa where her poet mother once lived with the people who live there now, a small community of artists who are each other’s family, either literally or figuratively. Lucy has visited once before, a couple years prior, but now she has arrived after her mother’s suicide for a vacation in which she will reunite with her mother’s friends while modeling for the sculptor husband of the couple who own the villa. Almost as soon as she arrives she causes a bit of a stir: both her beauty and the fact that she’s a virgin arouse the attention of at least a couple of the males in residence, but Lucy isn’t the kind of wild child who is out to seduce. She is refreshingly candid and open-minded, yet keeps her own counsel and values a certain amount of privacy. While in Italy, she is secretly pursuing her own small quests, one of which is to figure out who her true father is, for she is savvy enough to know that it isn’t the man who has been raising her in America. The other is to rekindle a relationship with a boy she fell in love with on her last visit, whose kiss and whose letters are lodged in her heart. Lucy wouldn’t mind losing her virginity – however, not simply for the sake of losing it and not to just anyone. Aware that others are watching and waiting for her to do so, she demonstrates a slyness and a well-developed mind of her own as she waits for the boy who truly matters.

It sort of tickles me that it was an iris-centric perfume that whispered Lucy’s name in my ear. Iris-centric perfumes strike me as intellectual, as they are often cool and ethereal fragrances that seem to be keeping something in reserve (they are not effusive and emotive, in other words, although iris does also happen to be a note that has two sides, often segueing on the skin to become powdery and cosmetic). Even so, many iris soliflores tread too far in a stand-offish direction for me to equate them with Lucy, who is as glowingly warm and romantic in comportment as she is secretive and selective in thought. Which brings me to my point and one of the defining elements of Le Labo Iris 39: thanks to the accompaniment of zingy lime and sultry ginger, Iris 39 is that rare iris perfume that vibrates in a way that makes me see it as having warmth and a summery, Italian-sunlight kind of loveliness to it. Though it doesn’t have a pyramidal unfolding on the skin, its complexity lies in the facets it embraces while maintaining its distinctly iris sensibility. How many iris perfumes can you think of that smell as youthfully siren-like (thanks to its green notes), sensuous (thanks to the discernible nectar of creamy ylang-ylang), warm and energetic (on account of ginger), and yet svelte, cosmetic and sophisticated in the way of iris (and violet, which is an aromamaterial that underscores the character of iris)?

The promotional list of notes for Iris 39 includes iris, lime, patchouli, rose, ylang-ylang, musk, violet, ginger, cardamom and civet, and while it’s certainly an abbreviated list (the “39” in its name indicates, as part of Le Labo’s naming theme, the number of aroma-materials used in the composition), it pretty much represents how this fragrance smells. I can’t say I really notice the patchouli, and the civet doesn’t come off as smelling animalic to me (at least not most days that I’ve worn it) but it does achieve an oily-smelling richness that anchors Iris 39 and gives it a sense of depth and presence, adding a womanly vibe that is taut rather than blowsy or pillowy. If I were to come up with a single sentence to describe Iris 39 in purely olfactory terms (no anthropomorphizing), the best I could say is that it smells like a mixed bouquet of pastoral greens and heady tropical blooms that have been gathered into the fold of something cosmetic, as if their stems were wrapped up in a woman’s silk scarf bearing traces of the face powder she dusted on her throat earlier on a summer’s day.