Reflections on Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

perfume: the story of a murderer analysis

My most recent Netflix adventure led me to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). I knew absolutely nothing about the film before I saw it. As a result, I was rather blindsided by the whole thing. I still do not know how I “feel” about the film, nor am I sure whether or not I “like” it. I do know that I am puzzled, mesmerized, horrified, and fascinated by it. I’m also very much conflicted, which is why I have decided not to merely review the film. Is it a marvel or is it a mess? Perhaps it can be both.

What follows is my attempt to think my way through a few aspects of the film that stuck out to me. Like most of my posts that aren’t reviews, this post contains spoilers, so don’t read it if that is an issue for you. If you haven’t seen the film, but want to read this post anyway, allow me to direct you to the wiki plot summary so that you can get your bearings.

Also, I have virtually no knowledge at all of the Patrick Suskind novel on which the movie is based. I know that there are many who love the novel and that, before Tykwer’s film was made, many deemed it more or less impossible to adapt. It is possible that familiarity with Suskind’s work would help to clear up some of what I discuss below; but, as I’ve said before, films should also be able to stand up on their own.

The Sense of Smell
As strange as Perfume is, perhaps one of the strangest (and most fascinating) things about it is its overarching interest in the sense of smell. Tykwer’s film discusses smell, and it places scent and smell firmly at its forefront. But the film does much more than just discuss scents and the sense of smell in an abstract way; it also comes as close as it possibly can to rendering scent visible.

Because scent is more or less invisible and is totally silent, the sense of smell is simply not one that films typically seek to engage. Why films usually ignore the olfactory system of their viewers is understandable, but Perfume challenges their tendency to do so. By featuring the sense of smell as it does, by using the visual to evoke scent powerfully, and by strongly impacting viewers, the film almost seems to tap into some secret power that was apparently there for filmmakers to engage with all along.

The fact that scent is typically ignored by cinema is hardly the only reason that its presence and efficacy are important to Perfume. While the film is interested in asserting the general power of scent as well as the fact that it’s virtually everywhere, it also aims to investigate and to reveal what it is that makes scent unique and fascinating.

Two characteristics of scent that the films emphasizes in particular are its fleeting and transformative nature.

Early in the film, there is a scene in which the washed-up perfumer Baldini smells a perfume that Grenouille (the film’s main character) has created. As he smells it, he closes his eyes, and the room around him is temporarily transformed into a stunning garden (complete with a young woman who gives him a kiss). The message of this scene is clear—the experience of a scent affects much more than a person’s nose. For sure, scent in Perfume (as in real life) is tied to memory (Grenouille’s flashbacks showing the woman with the fruit are evidence of this), but it is also much more than that. In Perfume, scent can transport a person, it can alter their reality, and it can even make them do things that they normally wouldn’t (the Pope’s participation in the giant orgy, among other things, makes this quite clear).

As powerful as scent is, it is also terribly fleeting. It’s transitory. It vanishes. It does not last. This fact haunts, and even drives, Grenouille. He becomes determined to learn to make perfume, not because he want’s to craft beautiful scents to share with the world, but because he is eaten up with the idea of preserving scent. After accidentally killing the girl with the fruit, Grenouille becomes so terrified of losing such a perfect scent again, that he develops an intense (and creepy) obsession with preserving the scent of everything (but mostly of virginal young women). By tying Grenouille’s obsession rather explicitly to the fact that scent does not last, Perfume also links the string of gruesome murders that he commits to the nature of scent itself. 

The Scent as the Soul
According to Grenouille, a being’s scent is also its soul. To him, scent is everything. Yes, he does only seem to concern himself with the scents of beautiful young women (more on that later), but to him, a person’s scent is the only part of a person that matters. This surely has something to do with the fact that he experiences scents so strongly and that he understands the world through his nose, but that’s not that interesting in and of itself either.

What is pretty interesting that Grenouille apparently has no scent of his own. The film’s narrator state’s this outright, which draws considerable attention to the rather odd fact. Given Grenouille’s belief that scent and soul are equivalent, his lack of any scent of his own can pretty easily be interpreted as a lack of soul as well.

Grenouille’s lack of a soul might be meant to serve as a sort of explanation for his monstrous nature. Perhaps he is a demon of some sort or, at the very least, is not quite human. The fact that he has no scent or soul of his own could also be one of the reasons that he is so strongly compelled to collect (and preserve) the scents/souls of so many women. Perhaps, on some level, he needs to consume so many scents and to take possession of so many souls, precisely because he is himself soulless.

Mixing Tones and Genres
While it contains flashes of real brilliance and truly is an experience to watch, Perfume is hardly perfect. For instance, just after watching the film, I remember thinking that one of the film’s primary flaws was its uneven tone.

The film begins as a sort of coming-of-age tale that seems at least somewhat invested in seeing Grenouille overcome the circumstances of his birth. Over time, however, it becomes clear that Grenouille is actually pretty terrifying, and, for a good while, Perfume becomes a horror film. Then, before it ends, the film veers somewhat strangely (or wonderfully) into the worlds of the fantastical and the surreal. The liberty with which Perfume negotiates genres and changes up its tone makes it difficult for viewers for to get their bearings and may even indicate a certain lack of focus or refinement on the film’s behalf. At the same time, the overall impression that the film creates is undoubtedly linked to this mixing of elements. Whether or not that is a good thing, is up to each individual viewer.

In line with its willingness to combine seemingly disparate generic elements, the film also constantly juxtaposes the beautiful with the horrible. Gorgeous shots of lavender fields and of thousands of flower petals occur alongside those of corpses and of hair dripping with animal fat. The film is alluring, and it is terrifying. It is visually stunning, and it is utterly repulsive. And it all makes for a rather unique and captivating ride.

While I still do not necessarily think that film is improved by its lack of focus when it comes to genre and tone, I am still inclined to think that this aspect of Perfume is less of a problem than it might initially seem.

When he first begins teaching Grenouille about the art of perfume-making, Baldini says the following: “Just like a musical chord, a perfume chord contains four essences, or notes, carefully selected for their harmonic affinity. Each perfume contains three chords: the head, the heart and the base, necessitating 12 notes in all. The head chord contains the first impression, lasting a few minutes before giving way to the heart chord, the theme of the perfume, lasting several hours. Finally, the base chord, the trail of the perfume lasting several days.” In light of this quote (and in light of the film’s preoccupation with all things scent and perfume), Perfume‘s strange (and even disorienting) combination of tones and genres becomes more complicated and more interesting than may be immediately apparent. In fact, a feature of the film that I initially felt led to attribute to sloppiness, may actually be the deliberate result of genuine inspiration. 

Perhaps the coming of age section of the film its head chord. That would make the horror section its heart chord, and the more fantastical final section its base chord (the end of the film certainly has the potential to haunt and to baffle a viewer for days). Perhaps Tykwer’s film was deliberately and intricately fashioned to mimic a perfume. With its disparate tones and images, it is not unlike the concoctions that Baldini sells. Certainly, it is no coincidence that one of the perfume ingredients mentioned in the film is civet. Like the darker portions of the film, such a substance is undoubtedly disgusting on its own; when mixed with the right ingredients however, it becomes something entirely new. 

The Perfume That Commands the Love of Mankind
A week after watching the film, I am still puzzled by the question of why Grenouille’s final perfume affects people the way that it does.That said, I’m even more interested in why the people in Grasse react so differently than those in Paris.

What does it say that those in Grasse (who are surrounded by perfume and perfume ingredients) are convinced of Grenouille’s innocence and have a massive orgy when exposed to the perfume when those in Paris (who, according to the film, live in the foulest and stinkiest place on earth) react by committing an act of cannibalism that wipes Grenouille from the face of the earth?

Yes, the people in Paris are exposed to a much higher dose of the perfume, but there is more to the difference in reactions than that. In both instances, those exposed to the perfume (which Grenouille makes from 13 women) are supposedly acting out of intense feelings of love. While it’s not too difficult to figure the orgy and the outpouring of adoration for Grenouille that occurs in Grasse as acts inspired by love, the violent cannibalism that occurs in Paris is somewhat harder to comprehend.

If cannibalism really is the most intense form of love that the people who live in the stinkiest part of Paris can express, then that might explain some of Grenouille’s most horrifying tendencies. Their cannibalism underscores a certain link between love/infatuation/obsession and murder in the film (which is first established by Grenouille’s suffocation of the woman with the fruit). Furthermore, that the people who murder Grenouille live in the exact same smelly part of Paris where Grenouille was born indicates that there is a connection between their behavior and his own. If cannibalism really is love to these people, then it would also seem that we are to understand Grenouille’s murders as acts of intense and genuine love.

So perhaps it isn’t Grenouille’s fault that he is a monster who cannot love like the people in Grasse do. Perhaps he is a monster not because of some defect in his character, but because the first thing he experienced as a infant was a concoction of the very worst smells on the planet. With the differences in the reactions that those in Grasse and those in Paris exhibit when exposed to Grenouille’s perfume, Perfume may mean to suggest that scents have the power to change people fundamentally. If Grenouille had been born in Grasse, perhaps he would be able to love like the thousands who have sex before his eyes do.

Is it Misogynist?
Before I end this post, I feel compelled to address the fact that Perfume left me with the lingering feeling that there something unfortunately misogynistic about the film.

The reason for such feelings is simple: over the course of the film, Grenouille murders 14 young women (and no men). He also strips them of their clothes and leaves their naked bodies lying out in the open for anyone to find. This, coupled with the fact, that the film portrays women as objects of beauty and almost nothing else does not sit well. As creepy as Perfume is, its treatment of women is what I personally find the most unsettling.

That said, there are also things about the film (for instance, how beautifully it is shot) that I really love. Generally speaking, I like Perfume. The film is fascinating, and I am genuinely glad to have watched it. But I’m uncomfortable with it to be sure.

Of course, even in the light Grenouille’s murders, one could make the argument that Perfume itself is not sexist at all and that only Grenouille himself is. I am tempted to make such an argument myself; however, whether or not it would work comes down to how the film itself feels about Grenouille.

Which is where, for me at least, things get pretty hairy. I don’t know how Perfume feels about Grenouille. I don’t know how it wants audiences to feel about him either. If it were clear that the film understands Grenouille as a despicable monster, then it would be much easier for me to separate his treatment of women from the film’s. Unfortunately (at least for this particular issue), such is not the case. While Grenouille is certainly a monster, the tone of the film (especially during those sections that include voice over narration) is a strange one and could easily be understood to contain sympathy for the strange boy who can smell everything but can’t love anything.

The fact that viewers of Perfume are given virtually no access at all to Grenouille’s interiority also adds quite significantly to the haze that surrounds him. Viewers do not know what Grenouille is thinking; they do no know what the motivations or reasons for many of his actions are. This of course, makes it even more difficult to determine exactly how Grenouille feels about and understands women. With not much more to go on than his murders, it’s hard not to focus on the fact that all of victims are beautiful, young, and female. Grenouille seems to reduce women to nothing more than their beauty (which, for him, includes their scent), and I worry that Perfume itself might do the same.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. If you’ve seen Perfume, please let me know what you thought of it with a comment below. As much of the above includes questions and speculation, I would love to hear your answers. You should also follow the twitter account that I recently set up for this blog.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

  1. This was really interesting to read. But it also made me realise that I’ve forgotten a lot about this movie and book, it has been almost 10 years since I’ve seen it and even more since I’ve read it. Sorry for not having to say something profound, but I wanted to let you know that I read your blog and consider it well-written and interesting.

  2. Thanks so much for reading it! No worries about not remembering the details (I’m the one who took 8 years to see the thing). I’ve never read the book, but the film certainly has me intrigued enough to do so.

  3. Steve says:

    I didn’t think too much about the movie at first. However, I had a problem with the perfume, and the perfume bottle. How after a time of water torture and imprisonment did he manage to hang onto it?

    Then the orgy. I recall seeing men and women, even women with women getting it on, but no ‘mano a mano’ action. The movie was released in 2006, so homosexuality was hardly taboo. I’m sure there were more than a few closet cases in Grasse at the time, which then makes me wonder if gay men would even be influenced by the smell of a perfume made from the ‘essence’ of women. Perhaps that’s why Alan Rickman’s character took so long to be affected by it (grin).

    Perhaps I’m thinking about this too deeply, but this seems to be a movie that’s deserving of thought. So it comes across as a worthy idea that fails. I haven’t read the book.

    • I have no idea how he held onto that bottle, but I’ve never worried about it. The film flirts with fantasy and definitely leaves reality behind on numerous occasions, so I don’t even see the lack of ‘explanation’ there as a flaw. It may seem like an oversimplification, but I’ve always assumed that the lack of visible man/man orgy action could be ‘explained’ by (possibly sexist/homophobic, possibly benign) choices made by the filmmakers. I never thought of it as a substantive issue, but I would never discourage you from trying to read into it if you prefer!

  4. Loved this film, going to read the book.

    Given that scents are the essence of ‘soul’,
    I think the whole perfume-making journey of the boy who has no scent of his own is a soul/ identity and love seeking process.

    The reason why ‘women perfume’ mesmerises everyone in Grasse is that it contains and expresses a sum of victims’ humanly passion and souls; on the other hand, the soulless protagonist kills everyone he touches (his ma, the orphanage owner, slave master), reflecting his unlovability as a monster.

    Monster also needs love though, that’s why he has 1) developed a love for women-perfume 2) needed women-perfume to bring him glory (when he presented women-perfume to crowd in Grasse, he was dressed in novel suit). The power of perfect women-perfume juxtaposes the protagonist’s lack of human worth, soul, and the real capacity to love (to nurture and protect instead of killing).

    • Thank you for your comment! I actually just read the novel for the first time, and I definitely enjoyed doing so. The film stands on its own, but the book does flesh out Grenouille’s interiority a bit more. I also just posted another piece on the film, in which I discuss certain aspects of it in more depth than I do here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s