Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You could watch Perfume under the false impression that it’s a thriller. Instead it’s a romance, albeit one with murder, death and mayhem.

One of the reasons why I love Perfume so much is its portrait of human obsession. All too often people become slaves to moments. They can’t forget them and they replay them constantly in their head. They then coil destructively and threaten to consume the individual. This is what happens to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He experiences one perfect moment and then spends his entire life trying to recapture it.

Therefore, as monstrous as he is, this makes Jean-Baptiste a rather romantic figure. He’s hopelessly trying to recapture the past, to preserve that one moment – to bottle it forever.

The scene where Jean-Baptiste’s obsession begins, the one where he encounters the female plum seller, is exquisitely filmed. Like a child he follows the beautiful girl through the streets (the musical score is wonderful in the way that the cue is almost like a siren call) and then when she finally speaks to him he can only smell her. He wants to consume this woman. He wants to possess her entirely. And so his eventual murder of her, through accidentally suffocating her, are like the actions of a child. Jean-Baptiste can’t comprehend the complexities of human existence and the fragility of human life. He’s a slave to his heightened olfactory sense – every other part of him that makes him human has been consumed by this gift/curse.

One could even argue that Jean-Baptiste isn’t human at all. Halfway through the film we discover that Grenouille doesn’t produce a smell of his own. Therefore he leaves no impression on the people around him – he’s like a phantom; he’s a no one. And at the end he’s literally consumed, meaning that all trace of him is wiped out.

But there’s another reason why Jean-Baptiste isn’t human. That reason is because he can’t love. And his realisation of this is crushing. It occurs during the orgy sequence when everyone is enslaved to his perfume. Everyone around him is making love, but all he can think of is the girl he killed. He imagines kissing her and feeling her body next to his, but it’s useless. He can’t have what he wants most. All the killing, all the attempts to recapture the past have been for nothing. So he stands separate from the crowd – completely alone. And at this moment, by opening his arms out, he begs to be killed, to be put out of his misery. But even his worst enemy embraces him. Everyone loves him. However, without a love that can be given and returned, it’s pointless. So only here does Grenouille finally realise that he’s killed another human being, that he no longer has the chance to love and that his obsession has poisoned his soul to such an extent that he’s no longer really human – death is the only possible response.

But before Jean-Baptiste can self-destruct, there’s his quest to create his perfume. And it’s here, on the surface at least, that the film acts as a thriller. Grenouille kills girl after girl and he stalks one redhead in particular. But even standard scenes of Jean-Baptiste lurking in the dark are filled with tension – there are no visceral thrills, but Grenouille’s quest to kill the redhead builds to a ridiculous extent. And the killing itself is perfect in how inevitable it is. For the whole second half of the film Jean-Baptiste has been chasing this girl. He needs her for his scent. But of course, the part of us that has seen loads of movies thinks that she’ll get away. So therefore her demise is both inevitable and a surprise – we knew it had to come but we didn’t quite believe it. And the killing itself is magnificently orchestrated. Backed by a marvellous brooding music cue, Grenouille enters the hotel. He then calmly moves through the building and makes his way to the girl’s chamber. There’s nothing showy about the scene but it has a sadness and an inevitability that I find irresistible.

However, for me the best sequence is the one where Jean-Baptiste first encounters the redhead. He sees her in the back of a carriage and then follows her scent to her opulent home. We then see Grenouille loitering in the garden before being confronted by the sight of the girl on her balcony. This moment is perfectly filmed. We can tell from the way that Jean-Baptiste looks at her that he’s being reminded of the girl he killed, and the swooping crane shot and gorgeous music make it achingly romantic. He’s overwhelmed. He’s almost in love.

But if the film has a fault, it’s that the girl who plays the readhead is actually a poor actress. Yes she’s physically attractive but she’s also horribly wet and childlike. But then again, this plays to Grenouille’s character. He’s not interested in inner beauty or intelligence or any complexity at all. He can only grasp surface beauty. Therefore the girl’s limited range isn’t as disastrous as it could have been.

Another minor problem is the film’s voiceover. For the most part it’s fine and helps the story to move along at a good pace. But every now and again it tells you too much. It tells you exactly how to interpret what you’ve just seen. For instance, after the orgy scene and Grenouille’s realisation that he’ll never love and be loved, we’re told exactly that by the narrator...after we’ve seen it! So that’s slightly infuriating.

Aside from that, though, the film is a joy. Few films have captured the nature of obsession quite so magnificently. And for a film that is so grim in its content, it’s also extraordinarily witty. I love the montage when the town of Grasse is gripped by fear over the killings. The townsfolk are given weapons and then everyone proceeds to kill one another – in particular I love the bit where a rich master shoots his servant when the servant unexpectedly wakes him with breakfast. And there’s also a lot of humour to be had in the pomposity of organised religion. The town priest, in the face of all the killings, announces that the killer will be excommunicated from the community, as if this is going to stop him. Well, it kind of does, because someone ‘confesses’ to the crimes. We then hear the priest orgasmically squeal ‘Hallelujah!’ like he and god are personally responsible for the scoundrel being captured.

But although the film is littered with dark humour, at essence it’s a sad tale. Jean-Baptiste is a man enslaved by his instincts and his senses. And one of the film’s lasting images is of him trying to capture the scent of the dead girl as she lies on the floor before him. He’s trying to preserve her scent and his confused love for her, but the scent is fleeting and he’ll never reclaim it. He’s lost to the world before he even has a chance to understand it.

Directed by Tom Tykwer
Screenplay by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Tykwer
Produced by Bernd Eichinger
Original Music by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer
Cinematography by Frank Griebe

Running Time: 147 mins

Rated R for aberrant behaviour involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.

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  1. Another great review, Ricky. If you get the chance you should read the book, it is far superior, the character of Grenouille is so despicable in the novel that it eclpises this film in every sense of the word.