Reflections on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006),
directed by Tom Tykwer
The first time I watched Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I very much disliked it, so much so that I gave my copy of the DVD away to an unsuspecting recipient, who however appears to have loved the film, as have many members of fragrance communities, at least judging by their comments on threads and blogposts treating this topic.
I recognized that the cinematography was exquisite and the musical scoring excellent, but I could not surmount my gut revulsion to the basic construct of the film. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the central protagonist, is a serial killer, and this film attempts to offer a measuredly sympathetic perspective on what he does. Both nature and nurture are wheeled in to explain Grenouille's aberrant behavior.
Born in the midst of a filthy fish market in a squalid quarter of Paris, Grenouille soon finds himself an orphan, as his mother is hung for the attempted murder of her child. She has birthed Jean-Baptiste, like her previous four children, under the table where she sells fish. Jean-Baptiste, unlike his ill-fated siblings, who were apparently all miscarriages or stillborns, manages to survive rather than being swept out and discarded along with slimy fish guts at the end of the day.
The infant's cry alerts people in the marketplace to his location, and his mother tries to flee but is apprehended and executed for her crime. So here we have both nature and nurture intertwined. Deprived of maternal love, the child will later come to demonstrate the truth of this pithy maxim of biological determinism: “like mother like son”.
From there, little Jean-Baptiste is conveyed to an orphanage and later to a tannery where he works essentially as a slave. At some point, the boy discovers his superlative olfactory ability and his entire world becomes structured by scent.
During these, his discovery years, Grenouille “accidentally” kills a a young woman with red hair whom he has been stalking because of her delightful scent, which induces in him, by all appearances, a sensation akin to ecstasy. To prevent the maiden from screaming when a couple walks by the place where Grenouille has been sniffing her (of which she has only just taken note), he covers her mouth. Women are to be smelled, not heard. Alas, by the time the couple has left, the girl is dead, evidently of suffocation.
This event marks Grenouille for life, constituting the point of no return for the young murderer in the making. His entire existence now becomes directed toward the end of “capturing scent,” as he puts it. Specifically, he appears intent upon capturing the scent of the red-haired girl whom he inadvertently killed, what he clearly appears to regret.
Grenouille begs his boss Baldini to share the secrets of capturing scent, which he does, beginning with distillation. Unfortunately, this method proves inadequate to the young man's progressively more obsessive needs. In his experiments, Grenouille discovers that the scent of horseshoes, copper, glass, and cats cannot be captured through distillation.
At Grenouille's insistence that he be instructed in other methods for capturing scent, Baldini sends his apprentice to Grasse to learn the skill of enfleurage. Unfortunately, for this historic perfume-making community, Grenouille embarks upon a murderous rampage, killing young woman after young woman, beginning with his first victim, whose essence he attempts to distill.
The other young women's bodies are slathered with animal fat and wrapped in cheesecloth, after which the great perfumer Grenouille scrapes off the fat to use in securing the victims' essences, each of which is poured into a tiny bottle.
A prostitute, whom Grenouille initially attempts to enfleurage while still alive, unfortunately puts up resistance to the idea and is thus met with a blunt blow to the back of her head. Women are to be smelled, not heard.
This series of murders is, apparently, all a part of Grenouille's heartfelt artistic quest to capture and create the perfect scent. What “the nose” needs are twelve different essences: four for the top notes; four for the heart; and four for the base. Baldini has instructed him that the greatest perfumes have also a thirteenth, mystery essence. So this theory of perfume-making, which Grenouille obviously accepts, is the explanation for why he has set out to kill and extract the scent of thirteen young female victims.
About half way through this film, it becomes quite clear that Grenouille matches the classic serial killer profile. Such killers often begin at an early age by torturing and experimenting with animals. Grenouille, for his part, attempts to “distill” the essence of a white cat, killing it in the process. Many serial killers have been said to lack meaningful relationships both with their family and with other people. Grenouille, an orphan with no friends or family, fits this description as well.
Being unlucky in love and sexually frustrated, in addition to having low self-esteem and a deep-seated need to prove to themselves their power in the face of what is manifestly their impotence—all traits also illustrated by Grenouille—lead such killers eventually to commit their heinous deeds.
Serial killers typically become obsessed (and this is precisely why they kill serially...) with very particular traits which they seek out in their prospective victims. In Grenouille's case, the victims have to be young and preferably virgins with red hair, though he does settle for some brunettes and one prostitute. However, the final essence, he determines, must be that of a red head, and he expends great effort in stalking and killing a beautiful young red-headed woman whom he has become completely obsessed with. Later when interrogated under torture by the woman's father, Grenouille explains his murder thus: “I needed her.”
Given this altogether classic portrait of a serial killer, up to this point, one might consider Perfume: The Story of a Murderer to be not so different from other films treating the grisly phenomenon of serial killing, perhaps the most horrific of which, at least in my experience, is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), directed by John McNaughton and based on a true story. But wait, there's more.
After evidence of his crimes is uncovered (dug up) back in Grasse, Grenouille is hunted down and apprehended, then thrown into a dungeon where he awaits execution for his ghastly and serial crimes. An angry throng of the peasants of Grasse, all of whom appear to be beset with bad teeth, fills the town square, where they call out for the killer's painful death at the hands of the local bourreau, who looks rather like a professional wrestler-cum-motorcycle gang member, and may actually be the brother of the man who ran the tannery where Grenouille was enslaved as a boy.
Unbeknownst to any of these unsavory characters, the “great perfumer” Grenouille has a secret weapon, the perfect scent, which he just managed to compose immediately prior to his arrest, thanks to his successful killing and enfleurage of Laura, his final victim.
He takes out his small bottle of this magical elixir and disarms the guards who have come to his cell to drag him out to the public square for execution. The guards drop their ugly demeanors, and their anger melts into kindness as they become putty in Grenouille's hands, going even so far as to dress him up from head to toe in blue velvet togs befitting of his role as the ruler of the universe, or so it seems they have become convinced.
After being conducted by chariot to the public square, Grenouille whips out and waves a handkerchief spotted with a dot of his perfume (which he has also applied to both sides of his neck) as he stands at the scaffold which might have been the site of his death. At first a hush falls over the crowd, and then after a short while, when Grenouille releases the handkerchief to float over the air above them, the crowd lapses into a paroxysm of erotic ecstasy, ripping off their own and others' clothing after which they all participate in a gigantic group orgy in a scene reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.
The most obvious interpretation of the orgy and the power over the people which Grenouille is able to wield is that this sick serial killer has by now completely lost his mind and is suffering a massive hallucination consistent with the delusions of grandeur characteristic of killers of this type. But wait, there's more.
At this point, the film really takes a turn for the worse, and it is entirely unclear to me what coherent interpretation might be offered for what next transpires. (I am hoping that commenters on this post will be able to help out here!) Having disarmed the guards and led the angry crowd into a massive love fest, after which they all fall asleep—not unlike Dorothy in the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz (directed by Victor Fleming in 1939)—Grenouille is now free to return to the womb, so to speak.
In a flashback of sorts, occasioned by his sighting of a basket of what appear to be bright yellow persimmons, which induces a flood of memories of his first victim and an erotic fantasy involving her, Grenouille reveals his recognition that there is something wrong. He seems to grasp, at last, that his effort to capture the scent of this woman has led him astray. His eyes well up with tears as he appears to recognize what he has done.
He journeys back to Paris and, specifically, the fish market where he was born. There, too, is gathered a group of peasants with bad teeth, hovered about a fire to keep warm on this cold night. Grenouille pours the entire remaining volume of his perfume over his head and the local peasants clamor about and close in on him. They then proceed to pile on top of "the great Grenouille", in effect, consuming him, which, the narrator helpfully explains, is what they believe to have been the only act of pure love in which they have ever engaged.
So what's wrong with this film? And why do I appear to be the only perfumista on this planet to have found it problematic? (By the way, everything I say here relates only to the film. I'll review the book later, but prefer to take films on as self-sufficient works, independent of their literary precedents.)
Where to begin? How about with the radical objectification of women? Some men like breasts, others legs, others booty. Grenouille has a penchant for scent. The value of a woman inheres solely in her identity as a repository of olfactory delight. Are women not rational and sentient beings, too? Irrelevant. Their deaths are a small price to pay in the quest for the perfect perfume.
A version of this question was raised recently by Girasole in her comment on The Question of L'Osmothèque
Far from believing that scent should be captured for all time, a view apparently shared by those who conceived of the Osmothèque and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille alike, Girasole believes the opposite, and her view has, I think, much merit. But for now let us return to the film and reflect a bit upon its reception by perfume lovers.
Thierry Mugler produced a special, expensive, limited-edition coffret to commemorate Perfume: The Story of Murderer. That's right, to symbolize the “beautiful” idea from the film of extracting the essences of thirteen murder victims and using them to produce the perfect scent! The Mugler coffret contains fifteen essences, said to represent the fifteen chapters of the book, although it was launched to coincide with the film's release.
This seems to me akin to wearing Charles Manson t-shirts or collecting memorabilia from the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, et al. There are of course people who do these things, having become strangely enamored of such heinous criminals. My question is: Why would anyone want to celebrate the deeds of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is manifestly a serial killer? Is he more of a perfumer than a serial killer? No, he is first a serial killer, and then a perfumer. Why, after all, did he leave Laura's body, her head shorn, on her bed for her father to find?
I do not know whether there have been any copy-cat killers in response to this film, but I do know that copy-cat killing did occur after Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. What does seem clear to me is that watching the proliferating aestheticized images of the murdered virgins is bound to be a source of titillation to real serial killers existing in the world. These people do exist, whether one wishes to believe it or not.
Nonetheless, in all of the threads about this film which I've seen at fragrance community websites, people have waxed romantically about the nobility of art and how great artists are willing to sacrifice any- and everything in their quest for beauty. Clearly, Grenouille is laboring under the handicap of a coddled cortex. Is he a great artist, even in the fictional world of this film?
Why did he not remember that distillation does not work for living beings, as he himself demonstrated when he boiled a cat, and a point which was specifically spelled out for him by his mentor, Baldini? If Grenouille was such a genius, why did he not whip out his magic potion upon his initial apprehension, rather than wait until the day of his scheduled execution? If Grenouille was so convinced of the sanctity of the life of his first victim and so crushed by the fact that he had killed her, thus destroying her scent forever, why, then, did he set out to kill thirteen more young women, also with scents which would be removed from the world, immediately decreasing its aesthetic value, upon their deaths?
Finally, and this bears directly upon The Question of L'Osmothèque: why would a vial of the perfect perfume (assuming that it was such) have any value for anyone unable to sniff it and, specifically, the perfumer himself after his own death? Could he not have experienced the scent of thirteen more living young maidens for all of his life, had he not taken theirs?
Capturing the scent “forever”—which is necessarily relative to the perceiver's own life—comes to an end with death, which implies that, to him, the experiencer, the scent can never survive him. Even if others will be able to perceive the perfume for another year, decade, or century, it will eventually evaporate away. Does this film not then definitively demonstrate the folly of attempting to “capture scent” forever, which is, in principle, impossible?
Now, I am quite confident that some will reply (if not here, at least in their minds...) that the film does not glorify serial killers, as Grenouille ends up dead, and the perfume, the product of his labors, too, ceases to exist. The problem I have with the ending of the film is that the perfume is said by the narrator (a person not identical with Grenouille) to have these magical properties upon the people who come in contact with it. In other words, the value of the perfume itself is affirmed, in spite of the fact that it was produced through the serial murder of innocent young women.
Does not the affirmation of the value of an end entail an acceptance of the necessary means to that end? If not, why not?