Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume is a movie I’ve seen on DVD with my brother a couple of years back. Originally, it was released in 2006 by Paramount Dreamworks, makers of the hit franchise Shrek (Go figure, right?). I actually find it hard to put into words how great this movie is — deep, dark and vivid and so twisted that one would think twice about casting the film’s lead character under the role of victim or villain. I’m doing this review after I’ve recently gotten hold of 1985 book authored by German novelist Patrick Suskind from which the movie was based, and it promises to be every bit as demented as the movie, if not more (review to follow).

Perfume tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an aberration of nature born on the stinky fishmarkets of Paris in the 18th century. Grenouille was born without any scent of his own but is gifted by an extraordinary sense of smell that can identify and isolate scents, a skill that is rendered useless as he is sentenced to a life of working in the odious and filthy tannery that makes up most of the employment in the city. One day, Grenouille is tasked to go to the city to make a delivery and catches the scent of young girl, a scent so divine that he wishes to capture her smell for eternity. Unwise to the ways of the world, he fails to covey his admiration of the girl and scares her. As the girl struggles against him, he accidentally suffocates her and kills her. As the girl dies, he discovers that the scent dissipates when the bearer is already lifeless. He vows to regain her scent and makes it his life’s mission.

What’s compelling about the film is its vivid depiction of an era in Paris that is so different from what it is today, a major tourist destination and mecca of art and fashion. Grenouille is a reflection of poverty and social division in the 18th century. The elite are so far removed from those who work the tanneries, sell fish in markets, and toil in the ports that Grenouille was cast like a fish out of water when he attempted to learn a skill (perfuming) that was then exclusive to the members of elite society. Because of his illiteracy, his logic was distorted, and his temper unchecked, preventing him from understanding the limits of the trade. However, his obsession with scents is somewhat justified as this is the only thing in his life that makes sense. His passion for learning and experimenting, while creepy and excessive for the most part, is also admirable to such a degree that his focus, had it been channeled properly, could have made him the most renowned perfumer of his generation, instead of the being the degenerate that has gained him notoriety.

The film had the same feel as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, although not as bloody. But while Tim Burton chose muted colors to make the blood pop out of the scenes, Perfume director Tom Tykwer chose to shock using vivid colors, making every scene like an oil painting come to life. In the quest to capture the elusive scent of his victims, filmmakers chose visual representations of Grenouille’s crimes (girl in the enfleurage vat), and shows the extent in which he does his experimentation. What’s amazing is that as I watched the movie, I felt no ill will towards Grenouille no matter how heavy his crime was. And he too, did not see anything wrong with killing in order to accomplish his goal. I empathized with him, even when he pursued his last victim relentlessly in order to complete that 13 scents that would make the perfect perfume, at the cost of breaking a father’s heart.

The film made use of the narration to fill in the blanks, flesh out the story, stitch it together, and establish the mood throughout the film, making it seem like Grenouille was living in a fairy tale, but with a much more macabre ending than the usual. Perfume was an uncannily quiet film, giving viewers room to think and to breathe, but the suspense is palpalable. Will Grenouille get caught? How will he do it? Audiences will find themselves torn between cheering for each successful murder or being disgusted by Grenouille’s stoicism amid the rising panic in the city.

Ben Whishaw from a scene in Perfume

Credit also goes out to the casting of Perfume — Dustin Hoffman as Giuseppe Baldini, Grenouille’s mentor in the art of perfuming, Alan Rickman, as Antoine Richis, the wealthy businessman set out to protect his daughter from the murders that have stalked the streets of Grasse. And leave us not forget Ben Whishaw, who gave life to the role of Jean Baptiste Grenouille, who made him vulnerable, and obsessive, and raw, and lovable, and creepy in all the right moments.

Perfume grossed only over $2 million domestically in the US, but earned close to $133 million worldwide. While the American audience failed to recognize the film’s treatment and content, its good to know that the world gave a chance to this adaptation. It was a movie that focused not only on the filmmaking aspects but also paid attention to details such as emotional impact. It was an intelligent script based on a literary masterpiece that compels audiences to take a closer look at society and the world today. There are a lot of potential Grenouilles among us, those who are uneducated in the aspects of right and wrong, those who grow up in desperation and darkness, whose perspectives are twisted by their constant struggle. Even now, there are still remnants of 18th century France that are reflective of society, perhaps not in Paris, but in other countries. Perhaps that is why the movie was the so good, because it strikes something in the viewers’ hearts — genuine human emotions — sorrow,  remorse, pity, disgust, empathy, shock… and these are things that don’t go away overnight. It echoes in the senses and ignites passion, in much the same way as scents did for this film’s dark hero.