Sunday, 25 February 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Every time I enter the local cinema, I hope it will be one of those rare times when a film not only moves me but also surprises me and perhaps even blows me away. This hope was fulfilled for the first time in 2006 when I watched Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a long film that seemed almost too short and left me captivated throughout.

There are at least three ways to approach this film. If one has read the bestselling novel (by Patrick Süskind) on which it is based, one can compare the film to the book. Or one can watch the film as a straightforward narrative of a fascinating story. Or, finally, one can watch the film as a work of poetic art, as a mixture of fairy tale, allegory and black comedy. I have not read the novel and chose from the beginning to view the film as a fairy tale (aided by the magnificent narration of John Hurt). I believe this is the best approach and that viewers following one of the other approaches are likely to be disappointed.

Warning: If you, like me, prefer to be surprised by films, do not read further until you’ve watched the film.

Perfume tells the story of a young man (Grenouille) in eighteenth-century France who is born with a remarkable sense of smell. Abandoned by his mother at birth (in a Paris fish-market), and possessing such a unique gift, Grenouille’s life is a difficult and isolated one in which love plays no part (we do not know if his inability to love or feel empathy is a consequence of his gift or the result of being deprived of love). One day Grenouille is transfixed by the smell of a beautiful girl and he can’t help but follow her. After her “accidental” death, Grenouille tries desperately to capture her smell and preserve it. His failure causes him to begin a desperate search for a way to preserve the smell of a person, which in turn becomes part of an even more desperate quest for the ultimate scent, a scent so beautiful and powerful that it can control all those who smell it.

Grenouille is aided in his quest by the perfumer Baldini (played by Dustin Hoffman), and by studying the practice of enfleurage (extracting the essence of flowers) in the town of Grasse. It is there that Grenouille becomes a serial killer (only beautiful virgins need apply) in order to do his experiments and produce the ultimate scent. We don’t get to know his victims, except for one, Laura, whose father (played well by Alan Rickman) knows instinctively that the murderer is after his daughter and does everything to prevent her death.

Ultimately, Grenouille succeeds in his quest only to discover that it was meaningless; having control over others was not what he wanted. Was he hoping to find love or to finally connect with other people? If so, he did not find those either. In the end he returns to the place where love was first denied him to make a connection in the only way he knows.

Perfume is a dark and tragic fable which somehow also manages to contain moments of light and wonder. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), in another brilliant directing job, tries to use the outstanding cinematography and an inspired soundtrack to evoke the sense of smell and I did sometimes think I could actually smell the fish or the flowers. Ben Whishaw, a British actor with limited experience, does an excellent job in a very difficult role, somehow enabling us to feel both sympathy and disgust for him at the same time. The rest of the acting is also good (though Hoffman’s accent seemed out of place and unconvincing).

Not only does the film allow you to sympathize with its antihero (a sociopath incapable of love or empathy), I found myself actually wanting Grenouille to kill, to succeed in his quest. I even felt ambivalent about the life of the one potential victim we are allowed to care about (Laura). To lose one’s moral compass in this way is scary and resulted in feelings of guilt but also of awe at the remarkable achievement of the filmmakers. And it led me to ask one of the countless questions which this film generated: Is this the feeling that allows some scientists and politicians to pursue their quests for ultimate knowledge or technology or control without worrying about the consequences of their actions on the lives of individuals along the way? If so, we are all capable of understanding what drives these people and maybe we are all guilty of blindly going along with this headlong pursuit of technology, truth or power. Do we really know where our pursuit of knowledge is taking us and the sacrifices we are making along the way? Do we stop and consider the future we are creating with computers, gene modification, cloning, satellites, weapons, etc.? Perfume suggests that when our quest for ever greater knowledge is not grounded in love and compassion, it can be dangerous, meaningless and ultimately suicidal. Now where have we heard that warning before (hint: read the first chapters of Genesis)?

Is this a film about an anti-Messiah whose gift to the world (founded in violence, without a hint of compassion) is a glimpse of heaven that results in a deterioration of the receivers’ humanity (a complete loss of control, embarrassment, emptiness) as opposed to the glimpse of heaven provided by Jesus, grounded in compassion and nonviolence, that leads to a fuller humanity (regaining control, happiness and fulfilment)? Or is it a film about how we live in a hedonistic world increasingly dominated by our senses, with so much effort going into how we look and smell and what we taste that we miss out on the human within, on real connections of the heart? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that we each possess our own smell, revealing the true heart of its owner, which is why Grenouille only pursued certain smells and seemed to lack a smell of his own? If so, then we need to enhance our sense of smell so we can smell out the truth behind the facades. Or is the film encouraging me to think alliteratively and suggest that it is really about loneliness, longing and love?

In the end, it’s not clear whether the filmmakers even had a message in mind or, if they did, what that message might be. I spent hours discussing the film after watching it and each person saw different things and came away with different questions. That alone makes this a great film worth watching. Which is not to say that it’s flawless. And it isn’t a film for everyone. But don’t let the title deter you from seeing an extraordinary and thought-provoking work of art by one of the most original filmmakers of our time.


  1. Excuse my delay in responding - I had to see it first. It seems to me, one could watch this film on two levels. One way (which is normally the best way to watch a film) is to dive in and let oneself be taken into the film. On this level, I understand your reaction, and can see the film's power to affect the viewer. It is very well done and, as you suggest, creates that mixed sense of sympathy and disgust. It provokes thoughts and feelings of many kinds. On my own, I wouldn't have made the leap, as you did, to those in our world who use technology and power without compassion. It is an interesting connection, though Grenouille's obsession seems focused on re-gaining what he had almost tasted and then lost rather than on the technology for its own sake. The thought I had while watching was that it was the dark side version of Lewis' feelings about joy. He doesn't get pointed towards God, however. He is unable to let go of the literal need to demand and grasp what he came near to, and he then loses himself in the demonic pursuit - successfully leading him to perfect despair.

    The other way to watch the film is to see it as an example of its own theme. The film's very power is loosely an example of Grenouille's power. It uses sensuality and universal human emotions to draw you into its darkness. To some extent this is what good tragedies do. In this case, it crosses a line for me. Currently, in BC, the Pickton trial goes on - the one who buried all the prostitutes he killed on his pig farm. Realities like this make me believe that the combining of female nudity with violence toward women is virtually always too high a price to pay for a film. No matter how much disgust is also present, there will always be the experience of stimulation mixed with the violent act, and I believe this will harm people.

    A month ago I gave testimony at a murder trial of a real-life chain saw killer (minor testimony of seeing him on the road). That afternoon in a video store, I saw a preview for Texas Chain Saw Massacre come on the screen. I was not impressed. I can't imagine how friends and family of a horror like Pickton would feel seeing a movie like Perfume.

    I suppose what I'm saying could be generalised into all kinds of censorship, but for me there is something uniquely damaging about the combining of sexual imagery and violence in a way that draws you in, that is over the line.

  2. Vic, I just saw Perfume a few days ago! I too was blown away by many of the same elements you mentioned, including how invested I felt in the protagonist's "success" (while I was at the same time revulsed by it). Like you, I was (initially) alarmed by Hoffman's accent, but then realized that he was playing an Italian immigrant to Paris, who, if he had been speaking French, would probably have had an accent jarring to the ears of Parisians. So maybe we were meant to be jarred by his "foreign" tongue. Upon realizing that, I was able to forget about the accent and concentrate on his performance, which I found delightful.

  3. Okay, I finally have a minute to respond to your comment. Not surprisingly, I completely resonate with the first paragraph of your comment and I really liked your insight on Lewis' feelings about joy. Obviously, I did indeed dive in and let myself be taken into the film. As you say, this is normally the best way to watch a film and I usually try to do it, though only the best films succeed in drawing me in the way I wish more films would.

    Also unsurprising is my inability to relate to the rest of your comment, though I sort of understand where you are coming from. As with films like Sin City and 300, people respond very differently to violence in film. Yes, I was drawn in to the darkness in Perfume in a way that was slightly uncomfortable (though quite intriguing), but this darkness, for me, had to do with my sympathy for such a sociopathic character and his quest (obsession), and had absolutely nothing to do with the violence in the film and its relationship to sex or women. In fact, I did not really think of Perfume as a violent film - though of course much violence took place during the course of the film (it's about a serial killer, after all). I made the leap to technology and power and obsession because it was only at that level that I could get into the mind of the killer.

    I do not generally like films about serial killers and usually feel no sympathy towards these killers, because as long as they are killing women for whatever bizarre psychologically-damaged reason, I can't understand them at all. Many films and TV shows in the past decade or two try to get into the minds of serial killers - what makes them do it, what’s the common thread in his victims, how can we prevent the next death and catch the guy? This has never worked for me because I cannot relate to the mind of a serial killer and think our society should stop being so obsessed with them. That's why I was reluctant to even see Perfume. But Perfume completely surprised me; to me it had nothing to do with typical serial killers in the real world (like those you mention) - it functioned at a completely different level - a fairy tale level. As such, the violence-against-women theme and its relation to female nudity had, for me, nothing to do with real violence against women and I was not at all drawn in to the violence/sexuality aspect of the film. I would certainly not have enjoyed it so much if I had been, just as I may not have enjoyed the film if I hadn’t seen it as a dark fairy tale. Of course, you could argue that I was seduced into ignoring or missing this violent aspect of the film, which does sound dangerous.

    But there is another element involved in this discussion; namely the fact that when I watched Perfume I had just finished watching all the rest of Tom Tykwer's films in preparation for a seminar I was leading on Kieslowski and Tykwer. Having immersed myself in Tykwer, I think I was instinctively able to see the film through Tykwer’s eyes and I am absolutely convinced Tykwer was not trying to make a film which would make the connection between violence and female nudity an attractive one. Instead, what I did notice was that many Tykwer themes can be found in Perfume, even though it is based on a popular novel. For example: fairy tales, life as a search for love, death as a new beginning, “spiritual” journeys, transformation, an emphasis on the senses (especially smell), heaven, etc. I was watching a fairy-tale and looking at grand themes about quests and love and about power and obsession. The violence, which I don’t remember even witnessing, was but a minor theme in this tale. And the nudity? Well, I’d have to read the book before commenting on how Tykwer handles it.

  4. I'll just add the one thought - that the fact that it did not strike you as a violent film is pretty much a demonstration of one aspect of the point that I'm making. OK - two points - in my mind there can't be any doubt that Tykwer clearly chose to depict the women's nudity in death with an eye to sensuality (as he does with most of the imagery in the film).