Perfume: the story of a murderer

Perfume: the story of a murderer

Cult films: ‘In C18 France there lived a gifted and abominable personage in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.’ Welcome to Perfume.

Perfume – The Story Of A Murderer (Single Disc Edition) [DVD] [2006] seems an unusual title for a film. You have the perceived femininity and passivity of ‘perfume’ juxtaposed with the active violence of a ‘murderer’. Then there is its own recognition of itself as a ‘story’, a celebration of its own artifice. As I said, unusual. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I did know was that Perfume was the fictional tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille; a young boy with a talent for scents and, in his own words, ‘the world’s greatest nose’. Who tried to become the world’s greatest perfumer… by harvesting the scents of the young women murdered by his own hand.

At first, ‘Perfume’ seems to wear the guise of a fairy tale; the rags to riches story of an orphan boy who rises from a troubled background thanks to an extraordinary talent. A lot of the background details are given by a seemingly omniscient narrator; it feels like a story, like a fairy tale.

Yet this is almost immediately subverted.

The film opens with Grenouille being led to his execution.

The jarring of these two forms creates a disorientating atmosphere that permeates the film throughout, and gives the audience a sense of unease as the blurring of two seemingly incompatible genres (the fairy tale and the murder thriller) builds the impression that anything could happen.

We as the audience are not allowed to identify or empathise with the protagonist for any length of time during the film. When we may feel sympathy for him in the orphanage, we see him smelling the body of a dead maggot-infested rat; when we feel his frustration at not being able to distil all scents, we recoil in horror at his murder of his master’s pet cat. Even the nature of his talent causes him to be isolated not only from his contemporaries – who cannot experience the world as he does – but also from the audience who physically can’t smell what he does, who cannot smell his perfumes and so therefore cannot truly understand his motivation for murder. Time after time the audience is thrown out of the film, unable to build a connection with the only real presence.

At the same time as we are not allowed to empathise with Grenouille, we are not invited to condemn him. The film offers no moral standpoint and does not aim to preach about the immorality of murder but merely offers a viewpoint into a different world. In many ways Grenouille’s situation is shown to be attractive; his sense of smell infuses lush colour into an otherwise grim and grimy 18th century France, and he lives with and for a passion few people are ever able to experience.

‘Perfume: the story of a murderer’ is gripping and intense, with gorgeous and eerie visuals that linger. You leave the film, unsettled, unnerved and questioning your own experience of reality; unless you have read the book of the same name by Patrick Suskind, you will be shocked by the ending.