Review of Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Vic Thiessen

This movie will be released in the United Kingdom on 26 December 2006 by Pathé Distribution Ltd.

Every time I enter the local cinema, I hope it will be one of those rare times when a film not only moves me but also surprises me and perhaps even blows me away. This hope was fulfilled for the first time in 2006 when I watched Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a long film that seemed almost too short and left me captivated throughout.

There are at least three ways to approach this film. If one has read the bestselling novel (by Patrick Süskind) on which it is based, one can compare the film to the book. Or one can watch the film as a straightforward narrative of a fascinating story. Or, finally, one can watch the film as a work of poetic art, as a mixture of fairy tale, allegory and black comedy. I have not read the novel and chose from the beginning to view the film as a fairy tale (aided by the magnificent narration of John Hurt). I believe this is the best approach and that viewers following one of the other approaches are likely to be disappointed.

Warning: If you, like me, prefer to be surprised by films, do not read further until you’ve watched the film.

Perfume tells the story of a young man (Grenouille) in eighteenth-century France who is born with a remarkable sense of smell. Abandoned by his mother at birth (in a Paris fish-market), and possessing such a unique gift, Grenouille’s life is a difficult and isolated one in which love plays no part (we do not know if his inability to love or feel empathy is a consequence of his gift or the result of being deprived of love). One day Grenouille is transfixed by the smell of a beautiful girl and he can’t help but follow her. After her “accidental” death, Grenouille tries desperately to capture her smell and preserve it. His failure causes him to begin a desperate search for a way to preserve the smell of a person, which in turn becomes part of an even more desperate quest for the ultimate scent, a scent so beautiful and powerful that it can control all those who smell it.

Grenouille is aided in his quest by the perfumer Baldini (played by Dustin Hoffman), and by studying the practice of enfleurage (extracting the essence of flowers) in the town of Grasse. It is there that Grenouille becomes a serial killer (only beautiful virgins need apply) in order to do his experiments and produce the ultimate scent. We don’t get to know his victims, except for one, Laura, whose father (played well by Alan Rickman) knows instinctively that the murderer is after his daughter and does everything to prevent her death.

Ultimately, Grenouille succeeds in his quest only to discover that it was meaningless; having control over others was not what he wanted. Was he hoping to find love or to finally connect with other people? If so, he did not find those either. In the end he returns to the place where love was first denied him to make a connection in the only way he knows.

Perfume is a dark and tragic fable which somehow also manages to contain moments of light and wonder. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), in another brilliant directing job, tries to use the outstanding cinematography and an inspired soundtrack to evoke the sense of smell and I did sometimes think I could smell the fish or the flowers. Ben Whishaw, a British actor with limited experience, does an excellent job in a very difficult role, somehow enabling us to feel both sympathy and disgust for him at the same time. The rest of the acting is also good (though Hoffman’s accent seemed out of place and unconvincing).

Not only does the film allow you to sympathize with its antihero (a sociopath incapable of love or empathy), I found myself actually wanting Grenouille to kill, to succeed in his quest. I even felt ambivalent about the life of the one potential victim we are allowed to care about (Laura). To lose one’s moral compass in this way is scary and resulted in feelings of guilt but also of awe at the remarkable achievement of the filmmakers. And it led me to ask one of the countless questions which this film generated: Is this the feeling that allows some scientists and politicians to pursue their quests for ultimate knowledge or technology or control without worrying about the consequences of their actions on the lives of individuals along the way? If so, we are all capable of understanding what drives these people and maybe we are all guilty of blindly going along with this headlong pursuit of technology, truth or power. Do we really know where our pursuit of knowledge is taking us? Do we stop and consider the future we are creating with computers, gene modification, cloning, satellites, weapons, etc.? Perfume suggests that when our quest for ever greater knowledge is not grounded in love and compassion, it can be dangerous, meaningless and ultimately suicidal. Now where have we heard that warning before (hint: read the first chapters of Genesis)?

Is this a film about an anti-Messiah whose gift to the world (founded in violence, without a hint of compassion) is a glimpse of heaven that results in a deterioration of the receivers’ humanity (a complete loss of control, embarrassment, emptiness) as opposed to the glimpse of heaven provided by Jesus, grounded in compassion and nonviolence, that leads to a fuller humanity (regaining control, happiness and fulfilment)? Or is it a film about how we live in a hedonistic world increasingly dominated by our senses, with so much effort going into how we look and smell and what we taste that we miss out on the human within, on real connections of the heart? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that we each possess our own smell, revealing the true heart of its owner, which is why Grenouille only pursued certain smells and seemed to lack a smell of his own? If so, then we need to enhance our sense of smell so we can smell out the truth behind the facades. Or is the film encouraging me to think alliteratively and suggest that it is really about loneliness, longing and love?

In the end, it’s not clear whether the filmmakers even had a message in mind or, if they did, what that message might be. I spent hours discussing the film after watching it and each person saw different things and came away with different questions. That alone makes this a great film worth watching. Which is not to say that it’s flawless. And it isn’t a film for everyone. But don’t let the title deter you from seeing an extraordinary and thought-provoking work of art by one of the most original filmmakers of our time.