#469: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Serial-killing scent-savant in a tale that embodies the 18th century

Initial release: 2006
Director: Tom Tykwer

When I first sat down to watch Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the 2006 psychological thriller from the director of Cloud Atlas and Run Lola Run, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The premise is lurid enough: amidst the stench of 18th-century Paris comes a man with no odor of his own but a preternatural sense of smell, who becomes a serial killer in his quest for the perfect scent. It’s the kind of plot you’d expect from a transgressive eighties novel, so it’s a good thing Patrick Suskind in 1985 wrote the book this movie is based on. But after having seen a number of high-strung exploitation flicks in the past few months, such as The Devils, I suppose I was expecting something along those lines, and I warned people away from watching the film with me unless they were as weird as I was. The actual film, however, is better than I’d expected, both in terms of cinematography and also how aggressively content-warning-ish it’d be. (Though it’s still about a weirdo serial killer who targets women, so it remains not for everyone.)

The film starts off about as rough as you might expect from that preamble, with the Paris of the early to mid 1700s a festering, squalid mess, the people in the market square barely human, with the film’s protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, being born amidst filth and left for dead, assumed to be stillborn. Somehow, Jean-Baptiste survives, and is dropped off at an orphanage where the children immediately try to smother him. As he grows, he begins to realize two things: one, that he has an incredible sense of smell, and two, nobody else does.

After being sold to a tannery as a teenager and spending years working leather in horrifying conditions, growing into a quiet, intense young man, he eventually comes into the employ of Baldini, a has-been perfumer who teaches him all the technical knowledge about perfuming in exchange for Jean-Baptiste helping revive Baldini’s career, but Jean-Baptiste eventually leaves for Grasse to become a master perfumer. It is there that he becomes obsessed with finding the perfect scent, believing that he can distill even a person’s beauty into a perfume. One by one he begins killing the more beautiful women of the town, driving Grasse into a frenzy; the film ends with him creating his most perfect perfume just as he’s caught, a scent so powerful he could, perhaps literally, control the world with it, or at the very least trigger an orgy at his own execution.

This is the kind of story that really could only be set in 18th century Paris; perfume is the nucleus around which the social conditions of the film are shown, with the stark split between high society (i.e. the kind of people who wear perfume) and the bottom rung of the ladder (everyone else.) And it’s not for nothing that Jean-Baptiste’s ultimate victim, the one he’s been working himself up to, the missing ingredient for his perfume, is the daughter of the richest man in Grasse (played by none other than Alan Rickman.) Somewhere in the middle is Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) who used to be a big name among the hoity-toity but with no actual talent for perfumery, only technical knowledge, he long ago fell out of favor with the upper class; his crumbling house is a metaphor for his crumbling life, especially when it collapses on him just as he reaches the peak of his new happiness. And as for Jean-Baptiste himself, while serial killers are a dime a dozen (or so shows like Criminal Minds would have you believe) his unique obsessions and methods are very much a product of an earlier time, drawing from an industry that was far more important than it is now. He was never able to transcend class; even under Baldini’s tutelage, he wore rags and lived in the cellar. Only at the end of the film, when he puts on a fancy outfit, does he have any sort of color to him; but, much like the love he inspires in those who smell his perfect perfume, it’s simply stolen, and ultimately has no inherent meaning as he realizes that no matter what he does, he can’t belong in this society that craves his nose but cares not for the rest of him.

Here’s a confession: I have no sense of smell. The idea of scents, odors, perfumes, aromas, all alien to me. At best, if you put a bottle of ammonia directly under my nose, you’ll get a reaction, but only because it makes my nostrils hurt. So a film that’s all about scent is not only absurd on its face — after all, the film itself acknowledges that scent is ephemeral and short-lived — but it’s about a facet of life that, while normal to everyone else, I have zero connection to. And indeed, it’s not as if one can convey a scent to an audience via the medium of books or film — though perfumers have certainly tried. So what’s left is Tom Tykwer’s direction, a tour-de-force of imagery designed to evoke a mood or feeling. The film is full of little details, short moments — the foot of a woman climbing out of the bath, perhaps, or a frog laying eggs in a nearby pond. It’s a very visual film, making incredible use of color as symbolism; it’s like watching a painting slowly being filled in around the black void that is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

So I was expecting a film that, like many of the more disturbing films I’ve seen lately, leaned heavily on the gross, and the grossly horny. And while there’s certainly a little of both, it’s undeniably a beautiful film, as well as it should be for all the ugliness it portrays.




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