Monday, 30 May 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer



This disc has been sitting on my bought-but-not-yet-watched shelf for a number of years. Visiting friends spoke highly of the novel by Patrick Süskind and so we decided to watch the film. For those for whom it is important, the film for the most part stays true to the book. Süskind's genius is in writing a story using only words to describe the central element of the plot - perfume, something which is sensed through smell. Could the visual and aural media of film keep the meaning and not lose anything in translation? In Director Tom Twyker's hands - Yes! Read on with plot spoilers - it's simply impossible to discuss this film in any way that is meaningful without touching on the plot.

The film is both visually and aurally stunning, so perhaps it was providential that Twyer directed it as he is also a composer of note and co-wrote the screenplay. By the time he came to make the film, he had been working on the screenplay and soundtrack compositions for three years and the music certainly strongly reinforces the visual story telling of this olfactory tale. It is quite a multi-sensory film!

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born to a woman selling fish in the pungent squalor of a Parisian fish market. She interrupts beheading cod to self-deliver under her work bench, uses her filleting knife to sever the umbilical, kicks the newborn into the gutter of rotting rat-infested fish pieces and goes back to selling fish. 

I usually find narrators in films somewhat annoying but in this film it is the thing that makes up for fact that the viewer cannot smell what the characters smell. The narrator tells us: "In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city's fish-market. It was here then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. It was his mother's fifth birth: she delivered them all here under her fish-stand, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths. And by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away with the fish-guts into the river. It would be much the same today, but then... Jean-Baptiste chose differently."

Grenouille was unwanted, unloved and abandoned. In the novel Süskind writes "The cry that followed his birth, the cry with which he had brought himself to people's attention and his mother to the gallows, was not an instinctive cry for sympathy and love. That cry, emitted upon careful consideration, one might almost say upon mature consideration, was the newborn's decision against love and nevertheless for life. Under the circumstances, the latter was possible only without the former, and had the child demanded both, it would doubtless have abruptly come to a grisly end."

Against all odds the baby is found and evidently has a super-strength urge to survive which stands him in good stead as he is first sold to an orphanage where the treatment of the children is no better, before being sold on at 13 to become a Tanner's apprentice. 

There are two remarkable facts about Grenouille - firstly he has a super-human sense of smell and secondly he has no scent of his own - an attribute said to signify a child of the Devil although the film chooses not to make anything of this. Grenouille did not begin to speak until he was five and even as an adult towards the end of the film never speaks fluently or easily. His world is the unspoken but sniffed internal world of his collection of aromas. There is a lot of darkness in this film - both visually and morally. Grenouille spends a lot of time in the shadows and the colour palette of the film starts out almost monochrome but as Grenouille's databank of smells increases so does the brightness of the colours. This adds a visual reinforcement to the development of the narrative.

Grenouille eventually ends up as an apprentice to the Perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) where he learns the proper names for the odours stored away in his mental databank of smells. The film is very educative about the art of perfume and we learn that a perfume is made up of three sets of four aromas - sometimes joined by an elusive and mystical thirteenth element to create a wonder perfume. Grenouille can quite casually give Baldini 100 new exquisite perfume formulae off the top of his head but his real quest is learn how capture the odour of all objects - including people. Grenouille is olfactorily entranced by the scent of a beautiful young girl selling yellow plums. He follows her, sniffing her scent and when he startles her, he covers her mouth to stop her from screaming but inadvertently suffocates her.

He then spends an extended time sniffing her corpse, ripping her clothes to reveal her lilly white virginal flesh. He is fulfilled and so intent on building his databank of smells that it is clear there is nothing sexual about his gratification - it is purely olfactory! As her scent begins to fade he becomes distressed and so resolves to find a way of recreating her scent. The distillation method used by Baldini is of limited use but Baldini tells Grenouille of the cold enfleurage method used in the city of Grasse in Provence. Baldini gives Grenouille journeyman's papers and he sets off for Grasse.

En route he discovers a cave where he withdraws for seven years to reflect on the smells in his memory before resolving to continue his journey. Arriving in Grasse he gains a position learning the technique of cold enfleurage. Grenouille propositions a whore who is confused and afraid when he starts slavering cold animal fat on her limbs to capture her smell. She begins to throw him out, but he kills her in order to complete the task and so begins a killing spree. He stalks beautiful women by their scent and ends up killing a dozen in the film (24 in the book). Grenouille is only interested in their scent and the authorities are mystified by so many dead virgins. Grenouille then searches for the perfect mystical thirteenth component - the scent of the beautiful redhead daughter of local wealthy farmer Laure Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood). As the narrator tells us, "He lived to find beauty. He killed to possess it".

The film builds to a climax as Grenouille outfoxes Laure Richis' father Antoine (Alan Rickman) to capture the scent of Laure. He is caught and sentenced to a most gruesome death but not before he creates the most powerful, seductive and intoxicating perfume the world has ever known. As he stands before his executioner he releases the scent and everyone swoons with even the bishop proclaiming him to be an angel. The massive crowd all strip off and engage in a love-in! Initially Richis is not affected by the aroma but ends up embracing Grenouille and calling him his son thus providing the father he never had.

Grenouille loses all respect for those around him because of the worthless nature of Richis' apology. It becomes apparent to him that not even the man whom he has so recently wronged by taking his precious daughter, is proof against the mind-changing commands of the master perfume that Grenouille has created. Once Grenouille realises that there is practically nothing that he cannot have, because everything is obtainable through the right combination of scent, nothing in the world seems of any value to him.  Finding there are no more scent worlds to conquer, and nothing in humanity of any value, Grenouille loses all purpose for living. I'll leave you to discover the bizarre ending to this tale. 

The narrator tells us "He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah. He could do all this, and more, if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death - the invincible power to command the love of man kind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it he thought. To hell with the world. With the perfume. With himself."

This is a film that will not appeal to everyone and those who do watch it will need to do so actively - passive engagement will not bring any reward. It offers a good opportunity to explore the ways in which Twyker makes smell accessible visually and aurally. The acting performances are good - especially from Whishaw, Hoffman and Rickman. There are quite a few shortcomings in the plot but I felt that these were more than compensated for by the other components of the film. I liked it - but once is probably enough. I'll give it 7/10.



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