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Perfume Movie Review (9/10)

Posted on May 31st, 2007 filed in Movie Reviews    |   

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Jean Baptiste Grenouille early life has been nothing less than miserable. Born in the most despicable way in the dirt of a fishery to a mother that wanted him dead, he spent his first few years in orphanage and then was sold to do hard menial work in one of the dirtiest underground neighborhoods of 18th century Paris (1738 to be exact).

He has one great talent however and that is an immaculate sense of smell that allows him to appreciate odors that go unnoticed by other people. Following a short and deadly encounter with a street vendor, he becomes obsessed with her smell and determined to find a way to recreate it.


Patrick Suskind published his masterpiece novel ‘Das Parfum’ back in 1984 and it was an immediate success. It is famed that many directors (including Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorcese, and Michael Burton) had serious desire to adapt it to the big screen but their desire never materialized as they never managed to figure out how to cinematically tell a story that relies so heavily on smell. And so it took 23 years for the ‘Perfume’ to finally grace our screen thanks to the brilliant German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and 10 million euros for the movie rights.

Tykwer manages to deliver nothing less than masterpiece and a skillful rendition of the story that awes, disgusts, disturbs, and amazes.

The movie’s mood is set from the very beginning with the narrator:

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 mothers 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

The scene consists of a succession of filthy images (maggots, fish guts, dead meat, …) the scent of which can be nothing less than horrendous to anyone, other than Grenouille of course. His supernatural smell power amplified this olfaction enough to trigger his first baby cry and thus saved his life. His early years were no rose garden either but rather a constant overdose of filth, dirt, and hideous fragrances.

As Jean Baptiste goes through his childhood and teen years, a lifestyle pattern becomes clear. Various people closely related to him (even orphanage children) continuously conspire to cause him serious harm yet he always manages to survive, either by intervention of a third party or luck. Those that help him (and ultimately abuse or take advantage of him) end up ill fated as well and suffer tragic ends shortlly after their being done with Grenouille. His mother tries to kill him on his day of birth, yet he survives and she is hanged. The same recurrent theme is noted with the orphanage lady that sells him to the tanner then gets her throat slashed, the tannery owner that drowns, and Baldini the perfumer who basically uses (or abuses) Grenouille to resurrect his sinking perfumery business then dies when his house crashes while the adjacent buildings remain intact. It’s as if Grenouille keeps beating the odds for survival and as if some supernatural force always manages to create some stepping stones guiding Grenouille to his destiny. Once their role is finished, they are expandable. Devilish!

The director and supporting crew manage to guide us skillfully and steadily into the mind of Grenouille and his ‘ enfluage (creation of ultimate scent)’ obsession.

First we learn from when Jean Baptiste follows the fruit seller smell and suddenly shows up unnoticed within inches of her, we start to realize what is so unsettling, and thus hostility-inducing about Grenouille. He has no scent himself and so to others he does not really exist. We also, with Jean, discover that once the enchanting lady was killed, her intoxicating smell quickly faded. Thus, capturing the smell means a very small time window after her death.

Second, when Baldini explains to Jean Baptiste the holy grail of creating a fabulous perfume, he describes 12 basic ingredients and a final 13th to bring it all together. He shares a story about an ancient Egyptian tomb that when discovered had a bottle of perfume that, thousands of years later, was still fabulous and so intoxicating that a tiny whiff lead to all present experiencing a ‘moment of peace’. The perfume was studied extensively but only the basic 12 components were identified. The final 13th remains a mystery.

Third, we learn from Grenouille’s first attempt at scent preservation in Grasse with a prostitute that, he can’t have any woman willingly contribute to his quest by allowing him to shave her head and crape off layers of animal fat from her naked body. He also cannot risk contaminating his extractions by sweat that will be undoubtedly secreted in cases of struggle, anxiety, or fear. The only practical solution is to kill his subjects, extract the scent off their body before it fades, dump the corpse and then take home their hair and clothes for further processing/extraction (A scent lingers on hair and clothes far longer than the actual body).

In addition, this experiment proved that the aroma he is seeking cannot be extracted from a sexually experienced subject such as a prostitute but rather requires a certain level of sexual innocence found only in virgins.

All the above sets the stage for his quest to extract the scent of the 12 beautiful virgins and his relentless pursuit of Laura, the most beautiful woman in Grasse, for the final and most important 13th perfume component. We also now understand why the girls’ bodies were dumped quickly while their clothes and hair were kept at his place and later on found at the end.

Tyler is aided by smart filmography (numerous roaming close up shots of Jean Baptiste nose in action) and an excellent score that succeeds in getting the audience immersed in the olfactory world of Jean Baptiste. The narration is a welcome addition and adds a haunting dimension to this fabulous script.

Whishaw gives a fabulous performance as Grenouille and manages to deliver an apparently innocent yet brutal character that makes one wonder whether to admire him for his genius, despise him for his crimes, or feel sorry for his horrible misfortunes and earlier misery. We have no doubt that Grenouille does not kill out of a sadistic desire. The tragic deaths are nothing but incidental in the larger quest of the ultimate scent extraction. We can feel literally his pain at the very end when he realizes his doomed existence, his lack of ability to experience any human feeling, and his lack of desire to live.

Dustin Hoffman delivers a credible portrayal of eclipsing Baldine and Karoline Herfuth is fabulous and very credible as Jean Baptiste’s source of obsession.

The last few minutes of the movie are its most powerful with Jean Baptiste realizing the power he now has while getting repulsed by the fact that even this wonder scent can never make him love anyone. This omnipotent fragrance, that could have been his salvation, ends up being of pure analytical interest to himself and thus he loses all hope that he may one day fit in this world or share in its pleasures . It is a fabulous scene with the scented handkerchief flowing slowly towards the crowd and the euphoria that thus ensues. The power of the scent is so powerful that primal instincts take over Laura’s father’s aching despair and sorrow leading him to actually see a ‘son’ in his daughter’s murderer. Similarly, the previously angry crowd see no less than an angel in him, while getting their share in the mass orgy that would have made the Romans blush.

I, myself, have not read the book but it was mentioned to me that the book describes the citizens in this scene as follows:

“filled with naked, insatiable desire…driven to ecstasy…”

“they felt as if he (grenouille) had seen through them at their most vulnerable point, grasped them, touched their erotic core. It was as if the man had ten thousand invisible hands and had laid a hand on the genitals of the people surrounding him and fondled them in just the way that each of them, whether man or woman, desired in his or her most secret fantasies…”

Thus, leading to the “largest orgy the world had ever seen”.

Based on the above, Tykwer has marvelously succeeded in his task of recreating this scene while being loyal to the book and all its nuances. Fabulous indeed.

The final scene back at the Paris slums represent a dramatic and controversial end. While I understand Grenouille’s despair and lack of desire to live ( no more tasks to accomplish, nothing to aspire to, no desire for power nor money, no sexual needs no feelings, and inability to interact with anyone) I can’t fathom why he would opt to walk to Paris to be cannibalized. Hanging is far more appealing than being eaten alive. And no marathon walking is involved :).

Of course had Baptiste been evil in the classical meaning of the word, he would have made use of his super fragrance to dominate all humans and have each of his desires fulfilled. The problem is of course, he has no desire, not in money, not in power, not in women. Too bad. He could have made a great villain in the next ‘Fantatstic Four’ installment.

Of note as well is the name ‘Grenouille’ or ‘frog’ in French, a reptile itself with no sense of smell

Final word about the concept of smell itself. With the 21st century nearing the end of its first decade, human scent per se is becoming close to obsolete. In a society inundated by shampoos, hair conditioners, perfumes and deodorants, the concept of being attracted to anyone because of their scent is starting to resemble something so remote that is hard to comprehend. I guess that may partly explain why this film was never released on a large scale in the US and Canada. The film’s box office numbers show only 2% of its income to come from North America! But who do you know in the US that does not have all types of gadgets the sole purpose of which being nothing other than eradicating one’s smell and replacing with artificial chemicals?

Perfume is a great movie and fabulous tale for discerning adults only. This is not simple passive entertainment but a smart movie that indulges every step of the way. Must see and experience.

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3 Responses to “Perfume Movie Review (9/10)”

  1. Samantha Says:

    I loved the movie and read the book…Your review is good, you must read the book. I must say though that the actor cast as Grenouille is much too handsome in comparison to the description of Grenouille in the book…yet despite his looks he is so cold and aloof that I have to give him thumbs up on his performance and thus through his character he manages to totally overshadow his rather handsome appearance underneath the dirt and his rugged clothes …so I guess he was a good choice after all…but perhaps it made his behavior a little less appalling to the audience?

  2. Rebecca Says:

    I was wondering about that myself; why did this amazing movie not gain any popularity in t he US… Love your insight? Is it because Americans in general are so obsessed by artificial perfumes that human scent has become close to obsolete?

    Well, I disagree, the excessive use of perfume, shampoos…. indicates a high awareness of one’s sense of smell and the desire to offer to our noses delight. Perfume is to our noses what beauty is to our eyes, what music is to our ears what kisses and chocolate is to our taste and so a society inundated by artificial scents in order to improve on the natural ones can only better appreciate this movie…. So perhaps this movie was not released on a big scale in the US because the book was originally German and it is widely read in all of Europe but not in the US? Maybe?

  3. Glenn Says:

    Good review…I read this book and I loved it. I was very skeptical that they will be able to find a way to transmit odor on the big screen but they successfully did, much to my surprise, the movie was excellent….the way we saw the layers that Grenouille smelled is amazing!!!

    But I disagree with you about the ending, the ending is excellent and most appropriate..why he walked all the way back to Paris if he wanted to die…well, if you notice during the movie Grenouille has very high endurance he walks from town to town without even noticing fatigue, the only thing he feels, sees or hears is what he smells….so saying “hell, why walk a marathon to Paris when I can die anywhere?” this line of thought is not even in his dictionary…and in a sense he went back to hs place of birth, the filthiest, smelliest place on earth and having no more goals to live for, he submerges himself by his perfume and gives himself to the crowd that is so filled by desire it resolves to eating him in a matter of minutes….

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