Archive for Perfume

Sweet Smell of Success

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on March 31, 2009 by babydylan

A man sits in a jail cell, shackled at both the arms and legs. He leans forward slightly and his nose protrudes into the light, taking up the entire frame. He sniffs once and his barely visible eyes glow briefly. We hear the sounds of approaching footsteps, the jangle of keys and the scarcely audible roar of an angry mob outside. Our protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is dragged to his feet to face the livid crowd chanting euphorically as his death sentence is read.

It is a foreboding introduction for Grenouille in Tom Tykwer’s 2006 film, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. The audience is immediately thrust into a world full of hate for the lead, a sequence that contrasts vividly with the penultimate scene of the film, taking the definition of climax to new levels as Grenouille observes a giant orgy, a result of his phenomenal sense of smell.

Perfume reaches its climax in more ways than one

Perfume reaches its 'climax' in more ways than one

Set in 18th century France, Tykwer’s world is a visceral delight for the audience. The stench and muck of the fish markets where Grenouille is born is conveyed with fastidious detail. John Hurt’s seductive narration describes Grenouille’s birthplace as being “the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom”. Demonstrating this, the camera lingers on the decaying animal carcasses, fish heads, unwashed Parisians and the general filth of 18th century life. As Grenouille’s mother is accused and sentenced to death for the attempted murder of her son, he begins his life displaying both a penchant for surviving and a remarkable sense of smell, making his transition from lonesome orphan-boy to hackneyed tannery worker effortlessly.

Ben Whishaw’s portrayal of the angelically emancipated Grenouille is at times both chilling and fascinating. Given scarcely any dialogue yet the majority of screen time, Whishaw uses his emotive body to effectively portray the mind of a junkie, and an obsessive one at that. As Grenouille enters the streets of Paris for the first time Tyker allows the mise-en-scene to take over as the audience is bombarded with the super-saturated colours of copious amounts of flowers, handfuls of fresh coffee beans, darkly coloured spices, steaming vats of laundry, freshly cooked food and powdered wigs that leave trails of dust to tickle Grenouille’s sensitive nose.

Grenouille's obsession begins

Grenouille's obsession begins

He stumbles euphorically through the throng, eyes unnecessary as his nose directs his feet. It becomes evident that Grenouille can barely function as a human without being constantly distracted by the odours around him, leading ultimately to become a dispassionate murdering machine. His first scent of the red-headed ethereal Plum Girl taints his perception of the world and in his eagerness to posses her scent he murders her.

Thus Grenouille’s purpose in life becomes clear both to himself and the audience. To find a method of capturing scent, so as never to let such a tragedy befall him again. He and the audience take a crash course in the art of perfumery both on a small scale with the aging perfumer Giuseppe Baldini and on a much larger scale as the film progresses, ultimately honing his craft in the birthplace of perfume, Grasse. Grenouille has no desire to sexualise the women he kills, his desires are purely olfactory, wanting only to bottle their purity and virginity. Thus killing his victims is an effective means of capturing what he needs with minimal resistance.

Grenouille learns the ropes

Grenouille learns the ropes

As Grenouille leaves Paris to expand his knowledge, the tone of the film shifts dramatically. Whereas the death of The Plum Girl was an ardent accident, Grenouille now actively seeks out his victims, dispassionately obtaining their scents, watching his collection grow with the look of a loving zealot. It is here that the film fails to live up to expectations. Where in reality Grenouille’s mounting murders and emotionless existence are a horrifying prospect, it comes across as a kind of vaudevillian pastiche with the audience feeling little to no sympathy for the murderer or his victims. The “perfect” Laura certainly looks the part with her masses of Medusa-style red locks and impossibly blue eyes, yet the emphasis Grenouille places on her olfactory desirability falls short of the audience’s expectations. His perusal of her to complete his ultimate perfume thoroughly tests the audience’s suspension of belief with a beautiful yet unconvincing “smell-cam” shot.

Dealing with the oft forgotten sense of smell, the filmmakers are somewhat limited in portraying the sheer delights Grenouille encounters. Yet the beautiful use of colour and richly packed frame is enough to overshadow the fact that we cannot share the sensory experience. As the film delves deeper into the murderous side of Grenouille’s psyche, we can’t help but wish he had of stayed in Paris where although everything was rotten, it was delightfully so.