April 10th, 2007
Perfume is a flawed but very watchable film by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run). Compared to Barry Lyndon, which I also watched this week, it presents a different slice of 18th-century life - the one from the bottom of the pot.
Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is a poor orphan in 18th-century Paris, where life is cheap. Here’s little Grenouille, somehow surviving his birth. Soon Grenouille’s mother is executed for abandoning him. (Good idea!)
Grenouille grows up inarticulate and brutish, except for his extraordinary talent: he has the world’s most acute sense of smell. This leads him to formulate a powerful perfume made from the distilled scents of 13 murdered women.
Grenouille is a psychopathic idiot savant with no empathy for his victims. He doesn’t distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant smells, and neither does this movie. The colours are rich and dense, perhaps to try and suggest the smells that are the real subject, and that we cannot experience directly. Watching it is an exhilarating, sometimes nasty experience.
The ending takes an unexpected turn, as Grenouille’s perfume actually works. The crowd that has come to witness his execution shouts out its love for him and falls into a passionate embrace. This includes everyone - peasants, soldiers, noblemen, and clergy.
There are religious overtones to this ending, as Grenouille and his marvellous perfume have the power to transport human beings to acts of love. But when the revellers emerge from their perfume-induced trance they are shocked and ashamed, like Adam and Eve noticing they are naked. And what are we to make of the sacrifice of the 13 women?
Even Grenouille is moved to tears by his own deeds, but they are tears of regret - not that he has committed murder, but that everyone except him is able to enjoy human contact. This is a creator who envies his creations.
The ending is too short to explore all of its own nuances. To make enough of it would have taken another hour or so, if not a different movie. That being the case, the film seems to end too abruptly.
I like Perfume quite a bit, mostly for the richness of the colours and the visual images. Here is a screenshot showing a load of blossoms being loaded into a boat for use in making perfume.
Another boat scene. The film is full of moody, rich, complex visuals like these.
I almost cheered when the young Grenouille proved himself able to duplicate a popular perfume of the day, without even measuring the ingredients, and also to improve upon it. At that point the movie is a little like Amadeus - a tale of a prodigy. But Grenouille is no Mozart.
The worst thing about the film is a distracting turn by the horribly miscast Dustin Hoffman, but the other performances are good, especially those of Ben Whisham as Grenouille and Alan Rickman as the father of one of the murdered girls.
I recommend this film highly. You should see it - but don’t forget that it’s the story of a murderer, and that everything in it stinks.