Perfume – The Story of a Murderer shouldn’t work. For so many reasons, it shouldn’t work. Reason #1. Character Formation-101 tells you that your lead should either be someone your audience can relate to, root for or like. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist of Perfume is none of those things. He doesn’t even fulfil the criteria for the villain of the piece – he’s not inherently evil even though he does evil things, and your feelings for him remain ambiguous – you don’t know whether to fear him..
Perfume – The Story of a Murderer shouldn’t work. For so many reasons, it shouldn’t work.
Reason #1. Character Formation-101 tells you that your lead should either be someone your audience can relate to, root for or like. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist of Perfume is none of those things. He doesn’t even fulfil the criteria for the villain of the piece – he’s not inherently evil even though he does evil things, and your feelings for him remain ambiguous – you don’t know whether to fear him, pity him or hate him. You never really understand him. That should make for a terrible lead character; somehow it doesn’t.
Reason #2. It’s a movie about the sense of smell. For one thing, that ought to be an impossible movie to make. It’s based on the novel Perfume by German author Patrick Süskind, which, from the few pages I’ve managed to browse through on Amazon.com, does a marvellous job of involving the olfactory nerves. But, see, a book can do that. Words can feed the imagination, and draw pictures in the air, and take you to some other place, and yes, even create smells. How on earth can a movie manage that? It shouldn’t be able to – except for someone suffering from synesthesia, maybe – but, thanks to director Tom Tykwer and cinematographer Frank Griebe (both of Run Lola Run fame), this one does.
Reason #3. It tears to shreds the nice little picture we have in our heads of France. This is a country we have come to regard as the home of all things beautiful; beautiful sights, sounds, art, culture, people, and yes, beautiful smells even. But Perfume shows you a France that’s filthy, disgusting and debased. It should turn you off – and it does, but in a good way.
So why does it work?
You’ve got me there. I’m not sure I know. I just know that it does.
I just know that you are drawn into this revolting movie like a fly to a Venus Fly Trap.
A great deal of its power comes from the way in which it answers the age-old question – What is the essence of a human being? – in an intriguing new way – Our smell. Our smell is what makes people who they are. At least according to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Grenouille was born in the smelliest area of eighteenth-century Paris – a squalid fish market. In the most powerful sensory-border-crossing scene of the entire movie – you don’t need 4-D technology to be able to smell it – his mother slides below her counter to give birth to him on a pile of rotten stinking fish parts, and abandons him right in the middle of the steaming offal. He grows up in an orphanage where, even by the lonely standards of such an institute, he is exceptionally devoid of all human contact and affection. Adults and children alike seem to fear or loathe him, or both. It’s like he isn’t even human. And, if we are to believe the premise of the film, he isn’t entirely. For Jean-Baptise Grenouille has been born without a smell of his own – a trait that – according to folklore, but never spelt out in the film – is that of the Devil’s child.
As portrayed by the angel-faced Brit Ben Whishaw, however, Grenouille doesn’t seem very antichrist-like. Not at first. He just seems lost at first. Fate loves an irony, and the boy with no smell is blessed with a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame. He sees the world through its scents, and he revels in them. What we experience with our hands and eyes, he experiences with his nose. Inevitably he finds himself an apprentice to a perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini – played by Dustin Hoffman in a superb cameo. Grenouille wants Baldini to teach him all the secrets of capturing smells. Why? Because he has recently discovered – in a scene that is all at once pure and touching, yet vile and disturbing – the most beautiful scent in the world: the scent of a woman. To go about capturing it, he soon resorts to one of the ugliest acts in the world – murder.
At this point in a review, it is customary to delve into the art and craft of the film. I have already hinted at its genius. I will only say at this point that everything comes together perfectly to paint a powerful, rotten picture of an inescapable obsession. For, you see, you could take this movie at face value, and see it simply as a story of a murderer – it’s pretty fascinating just like that. However, it’s when you begin to, dare I say it, sniff beneath the surface, that it becomes really interesting.
For one thing, it explores the very universal and egotistical human need to leave a mark on this world. It’s the reason we work, explore our talents, procreate. Isn’t that really all Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is trying to do? Use his only ability to create something to be recognised and remembered for? After all, an athlete who has turned pro as a child, and spent all his life doing nothing but honing his skills, hopes to fill as many trophy cabinets as he can. In much the same way, Grenouille wants to use his incredible olfactory sense to create a scent that only he can. And like that athlete is willing to give up school, friends and life to fill that cabinet, Grenouille is willing to give up morals, freedom, respect and, yes, even life, for that ultimate fragrance. His methods may not be pure, but his intention is undiluted.
Which brings me to another rather interesting metaphor the film throws up. Grenouille’s lack of smell is almost like the lack of all human pretence. The rest of France is covering itself in perfume to disguise the stink underneath, much like most people cover themselves with some sort of social mask. The young women that Grenouille goes after represent all that is genuinely pure and good in the world. The bizarre penultimate scene of the movie has been called by many a critic silly, gratuitous or meaningless. This viewer, for one, disagrees. Without giving too much away, it shows Grenouille causing a messianic frenzy by walking into a crowd wearing the scent he has created. It is as if the multitude’s eyes have suddenly been opened to the meaning of true humanity, and to the fact that ugliness is just part of who we are, it is not something to be ashamed of.
Maybe it should have been called Perfume – The Story of Humanness. Maybe that’s why it works.
I suspect more balanced individuals than myself would be vaguely disturbed to find they enjoy this movie. To them, I say, wash off the perfume, enjoy your stink.