Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

starring Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood
written by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Tykwer and directed by Tom Tykwer
rated R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.

This film was an enrapturing story full of thought-provoking beauty; a moving fable on the power and meaning of love, prone at times to displays of what many might consider profoundly disturbing excess. Perhaps they would be right, perhaps not. But I doubt that I shall be allowed the experience a second time, and so, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the title character), I will try to preserve it here.

Unlike Grenouille, I don’t think I’ll need to kill anyone, but it will be necessary to reveal the ending. I don’t think that should stop anyone from reading this. For most, you will finish reading about the movie here and know that you’re never going to go see it. For the rest, I don’t believe that knowing how the story plays out in advance has any effect on the enjoyment of this particular movie. I went in knowing all about it because I felt the need to read up on it heavily before deciding whether to go see it. I should note one source in particular, this essay from from Metaphilm. Its observations on Grenouille as a Christ figure heavily informed my viewing. However, aside from that guiding framework, the thoughts here are my own unless otherwise noted.

Perfume was directed by Tom Tykwer, director of Run, Lola, Run. In terms of style, I don’t think any two movies could be more different. Where Lola‘s frantic, music-video pace leaves audiences gasping for breath as they struggle to keep up with the mad dash, Perfume lingers seductively amidst breathtaking sets and locations. The film is based on Das Parfum, a 1985 novel by Patrick S? that filmmakers have been begging to adapt for two decades. Stanley Kubrick declared it to be completely unfilmable.

Tykwer’s Perfume is the most expensive German movie to date (it’s in English, by the way), with a total unknown (Ben Whishaw) in the lead role. John Hurt provides his always reliable narration skills, Dustin Hoffman appears as aging Italian perfumer Baldini, and Alan Rickman shows up as Richis, Grenouille’s self-appointed arch-nemesis. John Hurt narrates. The only other player American audiences are likely to have seen before is Rachel Hurd-Wood, who played Wendy in 2003’s Peter Pan, and here portrays Richis’ daughter and Grenouille’s prime target, Laura.

The film opens with a young man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, being hauled out of a dark cell onto a balcony. There, in the middle of the night and in front of a howling mob, a sentence of execution is announced. The setting is the 18th century, somewhere in Europe. Flashback a few decades to Paris, where a stinking fish merchant gives birth to a baby boy amidst the rotting remains that litter the floor of her stall.

The woman has already experienced four still-births, and she has no reason to expect this to be any different. Unfortunately, this numbed sense of resignation will be the death of her. The infant is, in fact, alive, a fact that is soon discovered by everyone around her when it begins squalling. The mother is perhaps the most surprised of all to hear the cries of a living baby emanating from just under her feet, but that doesn’t save her from an appointment with the gallows for attempted infanticide.

The child, who will somehow acquire the name Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, goes to an orphanage. Immediately, everyone around him can tell that there is something different about him. They are unnerved by him, and from the very beginning he is emotionally severed from the rest of humanity. What truly sets him apart though, is his mutant-like sense of smell.

Grenouille’s nose can distinguish between an infinite quantity and variety of smells at a phenomenal distance, and can even (for instance) smell an apple that someone has just thrown at the back of his head in time to dodge. Perfume is 2.5 hours of tightly-packed narrative that would take far too long to summarize completely. It essentially consists of three acts and a final denouement, with the transition between each marked by a moment of discovery.

He moves from the orphanage to a tannery, and from there to become the apprentice of a perfumer after a chance encounter on the street leaves him determined to learn how to preserve scent. A girl selling fruit draws Grenouille helplessly towards her. He approaches her haltingly from behind, drawing her scent in, and stops just behind her. Naturally, this behavior startles her, especially when he refuses to speak and she hurries away. He follows her to a secluded spot and sneaks up on her again.

His actions are intensely creepy, but purely innocent. He doesn’t know, has never had a way of knowing, what normal human interaction is like. He is used to being ignored or feared, and it doesn’t occur to him that he might have the ability to put people at their ease. Maybe he can’t.

In any case, the girl is frightened enough at finding this shady character hovering just over her shoulder that a scream escapes her. Grenouille, equally frightened, grabs her, covering her mouth and nose with his hand. His grip tightens as a passing couple pauses nearby to flirt, and by the time they are gone, the girl is dead. His sadness quickly turns to complete devastation when he realizes that her scent has dissipated with her life, and is now gone for ever. This moment will haunt his dreams and drive his obsessive quest to preserve scent.

Baldini informs him that all perfumes consist of 3 chords, with each chord composed of 4 notes (or scents). The ancient Egyptians, he is told, believed that the ultimate perfume would also require a final 13th note to achieve perfection. Aside from this bit of foreshadowing, his time with Baldini reveals only that the perfumer will be unable to teach him what he wants to know. For that, he will have to travel to Grasse, semi-utopian capital of the perfumers’ art. He sets out, armed with journeyman perfumer papers, and along the way he discovers for the first time that he has no scent of his own. He is a soulless void within his own frame of reference.

In Grasse, Grenouille manages to discover a process whereby he can distill a small vial containing the essence of a human being. The process is not fatal, but it would require the complete trust of another human being, something Grenouille has no idea how to gain. So he kills. It begins with prostitutes and the like, while he is conducting his experiments, but once his process is perfected, he targets only the most beautiful women (mostly the daughters of the local gentry). Before long, Grasse is in an uproar. Curfews are imposed, men roam the streets in mobs after dark, and the local priest prays fervently for salvation from heaven . . . all to no avail.

Slowly, Grenouille’s box of vials begins to fill up. There are 13 slots, and the women of Grasse are dying to fill them. The final slot is reserved for Laura, who (we are given to understand) possesses a scent of the quality of the girl Grenouille accidentally killed back in Paris. Unfortunately for Grenouille, Laura’s father is the only worthy adversary he has. Richis is a formidable opponent, but Grenouille inexorably tracks them wherever they go, and inevitably gets what he wants even as everything falls apart around him and people realize that he is the serial killer. He completes his perfume just seconds ahead of the arrival of the posse from Grasse.

Grenouille is to be strapped to a cross, beaten with an iron bar, and left to bleed to death. As he is driven to the execution block in a carriage, we know that he has already unleashed his perfume on the jailers. The courtyard is packed to the brim . . . standing room only, people covering the balconies and rooftops in all directions. And the sense of hatred for Grenouille is palpable. We see him dab a few drops of perfume on himself and his handkerchief before he steps down. The crowd is loud, but everyone near the accused is strangely silent. He steps up to face the executioner, an imposing figure with the customary black hood . . . and the iron bar falls to the ground as the executioner drops to his knees. The hood comes off, and the executioner cries out, “This man is innocent!”

Most of the crowd is dumbstruck, but those standing closest understand. The handkerchief emerges from Grenouille’s pocket and he salutes the crowd with it on each side. We can almost see the scent traveling outward as row after row of people arch their backs and squeeze their eyes shut in ecstasy. Within seconds the entire plaza has fallen on its collective face to worship the man they all hated. But now they feel nothing but love, and the effect has transformed every face in the crowd. Grenouille lifts the handkerchief high above his head, and allows the wind to catch it and carry it slowly over the people’s heads.

Hands reach out to grasp it as it flies just beyond their reach . . . floating slowly like a baseball foul landing in slow motion in a crowded stadium. A dozen arms reach out for it as it floats within reach, the crowd surges, and for a moment it looks as though there will be a riot. But there isn’t. Instead, the crowd quite literally explodes into an outpouring of love. At least, that is the idea . . . how do you show that? How do you show that an entire crowd has just been swept away by transcendent love for one another? Well, in this case, with the largest orgy scene ever filmed.

I don’t want to dwell on this, but I couldn’t help but be somewhat impressed by the planning it must have taken to get 700 people to have an organized orgy in a courtyard with the cameras rolling. It is perhaps hard to imagine, but the scene wasn’t titillating. The transformation scene in Orlando is the linchpin of that movie, and it is crucial that it be simulatenously graphic, artistic, and tasteful for the scene to work (and it does). The same principle applies here, just on a larger scale. It is a powerful scene, but the most incredible part is yet to come.

Richis, thanks perhaps to a much deeper hatred, is the only one unaffected by the perfume, and he approaches Grenouille with sword drawn and ready. Richis makes it all the way up the steps of the platform before he, too, is overwhelmed. Grenouille murdered his only daughter, but Richis’ hatred is no match for the power of love that has been unleashed upon the city. The sword falls and Richis’ knees bow. Tears gush from his eyes and he embraces Grenouille about the waste, begging for forgiveness.

And at that moment, Grenouille, experiencing love for the first time in his life, realizes its true power . . . and its true nature. He flashes back to his first fateful encounter with the Paris fruit vendor, but things are different. He sees himself approach her with love, as one human being to another, and he sees her reciprocating. He realizes that he could have had what he wanted all along, but had it on his own merits, had he been willing to win it over instead of wrenching it violently away. He has been a consumer and a destroyer because he didn’t know of any other way to achieve the love and the connection that he didn’t even realize he desired. And, flooded with this new knowledge, Grenouille begins to cry.

Grenouille leaves Grasse behind him and sets out to return to Paris. The world is at his feet. The narrator tells us that Grenouille could do anything: He could show up at Versailles and ask the king of France to kiss his feet. He could write a perfumed letter to the pope and have himself declared the new messiah. He doesn’t want any of that. With the power to command the love of all humanity at his fingertips, he feels strangely empty, for he still lacks the simple power that other humans have: to command the love of another person because you have earned it on your own merits.

Arriving back in Paris, he stumbles upon a group of beggars who are warming themselves around a fire. He pulls out the vial of perfume, and deliberately dumps it over his head. In seconds, the beggars are swarming around him, and in minutes they have devoured him (body and blood) so that there is nothing left. They go away transformed by this strange communion, each feeling that they have committed an act of purely selfless love for perhaps the first time in their lives.

I am rather tired at the moment. Watching Perfume was a bit of a draining experience, and writing about it was even more draining. I’m going to be lazy and let that essay I linked from metaphilm conclude my thoughts for me. I expect Perfume to return to my mind at some unexpected time in the future and grant me a new insight into something as yet unforeseen, or at the least a thought-provoking connection with something else I may be writing about. But for now, the thoughts offered by Tim Stanley (even if I’m not sure I’m in full agreement) will more than suffice:

The perverse and heretical interpretation of Christianity?s central figure could cause the Christian to blow this film off. But the reason I believe Perfume is so important is that its savior is so absurd. The great danger that faces Christianity today is the assumption that its truth is mundane, if not completely normal. As Slavoj ?i?ek has recently been writing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his essay “The Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy” in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Žižek argues that “far from being boring, humdrum, and safe, the search for true orthodoxy is the most daring and perilous adventure.” In other words, orthodoxy is out of the ordinary, if not absurd. Does not the Christian tradition feel this every time it attempts to express itself in secular society today? The power of Perfume is that it allegorically reminds us how strange Christianity’s central character is, even if this is done by depicting him in one of the most sinister ways possible.

The fact that Christians worship a human man who was crucified as a criminal is all too easily tin-foiled over like the wrapper on a Cadbury egg. How do Christians celebrate the Eucharist without even the slightest disgust recorded in John 6:56 after Jesus announces, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them?” Have Christians lost the revolutionary feeling in the command to love their enemies? Such an ethics is utterly absurd after the Holocaust. How do Christians love Hitler?

Like all good jokes told too many times, Christianity can easily lose its impact and timing. It is because of films like Perfume however, that Christian orthodoxy can regain a sense of the power of a radical punch line. Christians believe Jesus really did die on the cross. The Eucharist really is a taste of the divine. Loving your enemies really is the heart of Christian ethics. Now more than ever will the Christian tradition look back to the brilliant comic genius of St. Paul: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Or, more appropriately in this context, as he told the same church later,

“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ?s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, NLT).


~ by Jared on March 7, 2007.

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