The Beautiful and the Repulsive: Ambivalence in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererWhat follows was written for a course on “Introductory Concepts in Cultural Studies,” which was taught by Dr. Denise McKenna during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Initially, the paper’s central points where also explained in conjunction with a visual presentation, which is not included here. Furthermore, this paper is far from complete; Rather than present a narrow, well-contained argument concerning Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, it attempts to put the movie in contact with larger topics in cultural studies while also laying out a number of ways in which Tykwer’s film should be examined further. Lastly, as this paper was written for a Cinema and Media Studies program, it largely ignores the 1985 novel from which the the movie is adapted. That said, I recently read Süskind’s book for fun, and engaging it in depth could certainly sharpen and expand what I say below.

Also, this project was largely inspired by my fondness for Tykwer’s film, which deserves more love and critical attention than it has received thus far.

The Beautiful and the Repulsive: Ambivalence in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Perfume) is no ordinary movie. Released in 2006, the film is an adaptation of German author Peter Süskind’s 1985 novel (originally titled Das Parfum), which received wide acclaim and was an international bestseller (Markham). And yet, for all the book’s widespread success, Süskind was slow to sell the rights, and many believed the story was unfilmable (Ebert; Phillips; Rabin). Like the unusual serial-killer at its center, Perfume does much of its work in “the fleeting realm of scent” (Perfume). Instead of shying away from this aspect of the film, Tykwer embraces it, and the result is a jarring, almost hyper-real work that provokes intense reactions from viewers—whether they like the film or not. In a sense, there is something more consistently visceral, more noticeably physical in experiencing strong scents (good or bad) than there is seeing. Perfume is pervaded by striking, sensuous, and even horrifying images; moreover, Tykwer wraps those images in a tale that completely merges them with the notion of their smell. Through it’s scent-focused narrative (as well as numerous shots of noses taking in the world around them), Perfume attempts to transcend the visual, thereby challenging the boundaries surrounding the category “cinema.”

Questions concerning what film can depict and what senses it engages aside, Perfume challenges numerous other categories as well. As its double title indicates, the film is pervaded by juxtaposition. Somewhat like perfume itself—which has traditionally included revolting, animal-derived substances like civet and ambergris—Perfume the film combines the beautiful and the repulsive. However, where the perfume business has sought to efface its less-appealing qualities, Tykwer repeatedly calls attention to them instead. Shots of beautiful women are met with those of dead animals in jars. Tranquil fields of lavender are followed by images of death and decay. The film embraces the beautiful and the repulsive in equal measure, all the while refusing to ally itself with just one side of any divide between them. Such juxtaposition and ambivalence lead to a situation in which the boundaries between various seemingly opposed categories (such as “high” and “low” art) are emphasized and blurred almost simultaneously. As I discuss in more detail below, Perfume asks important questions and engages a large number of substantive issues—many of which can be tied back to the nature of art and of mass culture. However, while the film hardly lacks intelligence, it does refuse to provide straightforward answers. Like a perfume combining things as different as rose and castoreum, the concoction that is Tykwer’s film employs disparate (even contradictory) ideas to create one complex, sublime experience. Thus, while appreciating the individual notes of Perfume may enhance one’s reception of it, so does taking in the whole on its own terms.

In what follows, I read numerous aspects of Perfume, paying particular attention to those that seem to insert the film into fundamental debates in cultural studies. In doing so, I draw on work by a range of thinkers, primarily Walter Benjamin and Dwight Macdonald. Of course, there are certainly other valid, potentially enriching ways to read Perfume. For instance, exploring its specific engagement with the horror genre or teasing out the parallels between the its main character and Hitler could both prove fruitful; while such readings are not at all unrelated to the work I do here, I leave them to others for now (Markham). In addition to those I discuss below, other aspects of Perfume ripe for further analysis include the societal role of the artist, aberrant collecting, the nature of beauty, commodity fetishism, mindless consumption, and the way the film’s main character is repeatedly dehumanized by the system of capital that controls him. A paper of this size cannot provide a comprehensive reading of Perfume and its ambivalence, but I remain interested in the degree to which carefully considering the film’s relationship to larger, extracinematic topics might open up a space for it to be more fully itself—for some of its vacillations, contradictions, and ambivalence to be regarded as meaningful features of the work rather than as flaws to be rejected. Furthermore, while I do not develop various parts of this paper to their fullest, I do hope that this might inspire future investigation of Tykwer’s frustrating, fascinating film.

Though released in 2006 and based on a novel published in the 1980s, Perfume is set in 18th-century France, a fact which helps illuminate some of its more multidimensional thematic concerns. Perfume combines elements of historical fiction with elements of magical realism and horror. The film is presented by its narrator as a factual account of “one of the most gifted and notorious personages of his time” and as a story that will help viewers remember someone who has been undeservedly forgotten because “his entire ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history” (Perfume). Though a work of fiction, Perfume has an especially fraught relationship to history and reality, which further complicates the process of untangling its “meaning.” Regarding the 18th-century setting of Süskind’s novel, Amy J. Elias places it among a cluster of contemporary works that question and restage the Enlightenment from a postmodern perspective (Elias 533-5). Elias’s “The Postmodern Turn(:) on the Enlightenment” also includes the following claim from Jürgen Habermas, which is useful for understanding some of the chaos and possible incoherence of Perfume: “Enlightenment thinkers […] still had the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings” (Habermas, qtd. Elias 535). Tykwer’s adaptation of Süskind’s story reimagines the 18th century from a position in time in which the Enlightenment can be regarded as a failure, and in which hope for widespread, meaningful “understanding” has all but collapsed. Thus, Elias goes on to write that “Confronted with the explosion of irrationality, factionalism, an increasingly impersonal technocracy, dehumanization, and other social ills in contemporary capitalist societies, the postmodern sensibility logically turns back to the Enlightenment and questions the sanctity of its proffered gifts” (Elias 536). Importantly, regarding Perfume as a questioning of—or even as a challenge to—certain Enlightenment ideas frees it from pressure to provide clear, unified answers to its queries.

While a full summary of Perfume is not necessary for my purposes, some description of its main character and his actions will help frame the analysis that follows. The film centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a perpetual outsider with an impossibly well-developed sense of smell—a talent which makes “him unique among mankind” and which pushes him toward the animal and the superhuman simultaneously (Perfume). After he is unceremoniously birthed in a Parisian fish market—on what the film’s narrator (John Hurt) declares “the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom”—Grenouille is discarded by his mother and left for dead (Perfume). He is then taken to an orphanage where the other children regard him as a freak and even try to kill him. As he grows up, Grenouille voraciously seeks new smells; preferring his “olfactory experiences” above all else, Grenouille fails to connect with others and rarely speaks (Perfume). Then, at the age of thirteen, he is sold to a tannery (a place overflowing with unpleasant smells). There, he toils away into adulthood, all the while dreaming of the “utopia of unexplored smells” waiting for him beyond his putrid prison (Perfume).

When Grenouille finally gets a chance to venture into those nicer parts of Paris (while making a delivery for the tanner), he is enraptured by all the scents, and his life if changed forever. When he encounters his first perfume shop, he is transfixed and stops to watch the customers inside. He then encounters a beautiful girl selling plums. Mesmerized by her aroma, he follows her, startles, her, and then accidentally suffocates her in an attempt to stop her from screaming. Taken aback by her death, he then tries to experience as much of her scent as possible before it dissipates from her corpse. When it does, he is devastated, and from that moment on, he becomes obsessed with finding a way to “preserve scent” “so that never again would he lose such sublime beauty” (Perfume). Grenouille then uses his exceptional sense of smell to convince a washed-up old perfumer named Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to buy him from the tanner.

While working for Baldini, Grenouille is desperate to learn how to “keep smells” (Perfume). The old perfumer teaches him what he can, but his methods are limited. After realizing this, Grenouille travels to Grasse—which Baldini calls “the promised land of perfume”—to learn “the mysterious art of enfleurage” (Perfume). While there, he begins experimenting with ways to use the technique to capture the scents of beautiful women. After a prostitute refuses to willingly participate in his efforts, he kills her and uses her corpse. Grenouille then proceeds to do the same with eleven other women before setting his sights on the daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) of a local nobleman (Alan Rickman). With her pale skin and vivid red hair, the daughter reminds Grenouille of the girl with the plums, and he becomes determined to use her scent as the final ingredient in the perfume he crafts from his victims. Despite her father’s attempts to save her from Grasse’s serial killer, she is murdered by Grenouille and his perfume is completed anyway. At this point, Grenouille is almost immediately caught and sentenced to a torturous execution. But thanks to the overwhelming power of his perfume, he convinces the people of Grasse that he is innocent. He then leaves their town freely, returns to Paris, and is promptly eaten by a crowd of peasants, not far from the same disgusting spot on which he was born.

Perfume’s plot is often outrageous, which is connected to the fact that much of the film flies in the face of Enlightenment rationality and reason. One place this can be seen is in the way Grenouille learns and practices perfumery. As depicted in Tykwer’s film, perfume exists in a strange space that mixes commerce, science, and art; and through his violent, horrifying acts, Grenouille distorts and reveals the dark underbellies of all three.

Grenouille’s superhuman sense of smell enables him to make enticing perfumes in a matter of seconds, which is the only reason Baldini gives him a job. Due to the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, Grenouille would never enter the world of perfumery were it not for his exceptional nose. By the time Grenouille enters his life, Baldini’s once-grand business is failing, and his inspiration for crafting profitable scents is all but spent. Grenouille infiltrates the world of perfume. Once there, he both exploits that world to his own ends and is exploited himself. Though Grenouille learns about perfumery from numerous people, Baldini is the one who first opens that door. Notably, he does so, not because he has any real interest in helping Grenouille develop as an artist, but because he can use his special nose to rehabilitate his business. Thus, Baldini—as a member of a higher cultural tier than Grenouille—can at least partially be blamed for the destruction Grenouille causes after working for him. This situation connects to one of Macdonald’s key points in “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in which he argues that “The upper classes, who begin by using [mass culture] to make money from the crude tastes of the masses and to dominate them politically, end by finding their own culture attacked and even threatened with destruction by the instrument they have thoughtlessly employed” (Macdonald 41). An “instrument,” Grenouille creates hundreds of profitable perfumes for Baldini, but he never receives any credit or financial gain from his work—any such benefits go to Baldini alone. Baldini also exploits Grenouille by requiring him to come up with one-hundred additional perfumes before giving him the journeyman’s papers he needs to travel to Grasse. Importantly however, Baldini does not escape his lopsided relationship with Grenouille without coming to harm himself. Not only does Baldini set off a chain of events that leads to widespread death and chaos in Grasse, he also dies before turning Grenouille’s final batch of perfumes into cash. The same night Grenouille leaves Baldini’s shop, the entire building collapses into the river below, killing Baldini. If Macdonald were watching Perfume, he might say that the old perfumer is punished for “thoughtlessly employ[ing]” a “crude,” filthy orphan “to make money” (Macdonald 41).

Though the issue remains just under the film’s surface, there is a constant tension between Grenouille’s lowly background—which is reflected in his worn, simple attire—and the wealthier, more cultured, and more artistic world of perfumery. More importantly, contained within this tension is the question of whether someone born with nothing and raised in an orphanage, of whether someone who is bought, sold, and dehumanized throughout his life could ever have anything but a perverse, at least partially destructive relationship to art and beauty. Macdonald declares that mass culture holds the power to corrupt so-called “High Culture” (Macdonald 43). He also writes that mass culture “destroys all values, since value judgements imply discrimination” (Macdonald 42). Grenouille is one of the unwashed masses (that he almost always appears sweaty and streaked with dirt is no coincidence). He cannot tell the difference between “high” and “low”; indeed, he does not care too. Thus, When Grenouille travels through the shops of Paris and experiences perfume for the first time, the narrator describes his olfactory delight saying, “He was not choosing. He did not differentiate between what are commonly considered to be good smells and bad. At least, not yet. He was very greedy. The goal was to possess everything the world had to offer in the way of odors” (Perfume). If the likes of Macdonald and F.R. Leavis are to be believed, Grenouille’s cultural status and lack of discrimination between smells both render him a threat to art and to the powers that be (Leavis 33, Macdonald 40-4). Grenouille is born in a fish market reeking of filth and decay. Later, he spends his adolescence surrounded by the odors of a tanner. Well before he ever thinks of perfumery or the preservation of beauty, Grenouille consumes some of the worst smells imaginable, and he lacks experience with “good” scents. Thus, even if Tykwer’s well-informed narrator never answers the question outright, Perfume still asks viewers to consider if Grenouille could ever express himself artistically without throwing the world around him into darkness and disarray.

The way Grenouille practices perfumery places it in an odd space between science and art while also depicting both as potentially threatening. Grenouille goes to great lengths to devise a way to capture the scents of women and turn them into perfume, and at various points throughout the film he “experiments” like a sort of mad scientist (Perfume). Before becoming a serial killer and devising a way to practice enfleurage on humans, Grenouille tries (and fails) to capture the scents of things like copper, glass, and Baldini’s cat (which he kills). In conducting these experiments, Grenouille shows no respect for established practices; when Baldini finds what he is doing, he is deeply disturbed, and from that moment on, Grenouille is more careful to keep his efforts hidden. Not unlike Victor Frankenstein, Grenouille transgresses boundaries to terrifying ends in the name of a singular, socially unacceptable goal. Grenouille repeatedly misinterprets Baldini as well; for instance, he takes his story about a mythic, all-powerful perfume with a mysterious thirteenth ingredient literally despite its fictitious nature. Grenouille also twists Baldini’s teachings by deciding that “the soul of beings is [literally] their scent” (Perfume). This belief colors everything that Grenouille does in the name of his obsession, while also complicating the nature of the powerful and extremely dangerous perfume he creates.

Grenouille’s belief that scents are souls is also important, because he has no scent of his own. As Roger Ebert notes in his (four-star) review of the film, lacking a scent “is ascribed by legend to the spawn of the devil” (Ebert). In keeping with its refusal to willingly flatten the way it is interpreted, Perfume never allows this connection to emerge completely, but it remains part of the film all the same. After spending time in an isolated cave somewhere between Paris and Grasse—in a clean, liminal space untainted by smells or other people—Grenouille finds that he himself has no smell, and the revelation disturbs him greatly. As the narrator puts it, “For the first time in his life, Grenouille realized that he had no smell of his own. He realized that all his life he had been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist” (Perfume). As someone who believes scents are souls and who interacts and experiences others almost exclusively by smelling them, Grenouille understands his own lack of scent as both a lack of identity and as a harbinger of his mortality. Moreover, such lack of identity can be connected to his aberrant behavior, as it may explain his obsessive drive to consume and to preserve the scents of others. The film itself gestures toward this connection through its narrator, who claims that after finding himself thoroughly unsettled by the absence of any smell distinctly his own, Grenouille resolves “to teach the world not only that he exist[s], that he [is] someone, but that he [is] exceptional” (Perfume). In doing so, he becomes a serial killer and throws the entire town of Grasse into chaos. Grenouille before he enters the cave may be monstrous, but he doesn’t kill people deliberately or completely commit to making a perfume out of women until he is faced with the scentlessness of his own being. Furthermore, why Grenouille has no scent is never made clear, just as whether he is born a monster, becomes one, or is turned into one (if he is even a monster at all) is left ambiguous.

Perfume’s association of scent with souls—as well as Grenouille’s obsession with preserving and distilling beauty by making of perfume—echoes aspects of Benjamin’s concept of “aura.” While viewing the Enlightenment through a lens clouded with disillusionment, Perfume also complicates and darkens certain ideas from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Though Benjamin primarily discusses “aura” in connection with “historical” and art objects, he does say that “natural” objects (such as mountains) have an “aura” as well (Benjamin 795). From here, applying the term to the beautiful women that Grenouille kills and repurposes to make his art is hardly an unreasonable stretch. That said, Benjamin also claims that “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning” and that “no natural object is vulnerable on that score” (Benjamin 794). Where the “authenticity” of an “art object” is easily damaged and “interfered with” through reproduction, that of something “natural” is not (Benjamin 794). This may seem to undermine the idea that anything distilled from a “natural” object (like a beautiful woman’s scent) is comparable to art’s “aura.” Contrariwise, it may actually explain why in Perfume, a beautiful woman’s “aura” can live on beyond her. Near the end of the film, the narrator tells viewers that the perfume Grenouille uses women to make is so powerful that he could literally “enslave the whole word if he chose” (Perfume). The beauty of the perfume is the beauty of his murder victims. Where the “authenticity,” the “most sensitive nucleus” of an “art object” is “vulnerable” to destruction, that of the “natural” (or, the organic) in Perfume can be bottled and repurposed, and for long after the being it once belonged to has ceased to exist. Or at least, it can in the hands of Grenouille. The efficacy of the auras that go into his perfume does not die with the women he kills, it only dies when the perfumes evaporates, when its scent dissipates.

Likening scent in Perfume to “aura” also troubles the relationship between reproduction and destruction in Benjamin. For, where Benjamin positions “aura” as “the eliminated element […] that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” Grenouille explicitly devotes himself to the preservation of scent (Benjamin 794). By the time he arrives in Grasse, all the young perfumer cares about is capturing and bottling the scents of beautiful women—both as a means of preserving beauty itself and as a way of asserting his existence and unique ability. In transforming his victims into perfume, Grenouille can be said to reproduce them in a loose sense; in doing so, he isolates and takes possession of that which declares their “uniqueness” (Benjamin 795). It’s not that nothing is lost in the process—the women do die, after all—but their essence is concentrated, not diluted. Put another way, Grenouille’s particular manner of destroying beautiful women reduces them to nothing but pure “aura.” Benjamin compares the destruction of art’s “aura” to “pry[ing] an object from its shell,” but Grenouille doesn’t pry objects from their shells; he pries auras from their objects (Benjamin 795).

Essentially, Tykwer’s film seems to invert (or at least, to alter) aspects of Benjamin’s argument while simultaneously confirming the value of the aura more generally. In creating his perfume—which is so great that it gives him “the invincible power to command the love of mankind”—Grenouille can be said to harness “aura” (Perfume). In doing so, he creates something so beautiful that he is able to avoid an execution that—as far as both the law and the church are concerned—he most definitely deserves. On one hand, such would seem to support the general importance that Benjamin ascribes to the “aura”, even if somewhat obliquely (Benjamin 794-5). However, given Grenouille’s position outside of accepted norms—as well as the manipulative, destructive ends to which he deploys his ultimate perfume—the film also ask viewers to consider whether not the “aura” (or the essence of beauty) should be regarded as dangerous. Like Grenouille himself—and like so much of Perfume more generally—the reduction of beautiful women to their auras and the substance those auras are used to create cannot be read in a single, straightforward way. Instead, they are open to polysemy and encourage viewers to approach them from various angles.

No straightforward protagonist, Grenouille “simultaneously represents the aesthete as hero, anti-hero, messiah, [and] anti-Christ,” both alternately and all at once (Rabin). As such, he perverts perfumery, rendering it illegible in any straightforward way. Grenouille’s perfume is beautiful, exceptional, and powerful. It is also repulsive, destructive, and terrifying. As Elias argues, “the postmodern psyche” that informs works like Perfume “seems compelled to rewrite the Enlightenment past […] in order to construct, and perhaps vindicate, itself and to confront the promise of Enlightenment epistemology” (Elias 535). Art, science, law, order, and reason are all helpless against Grenouille. Faced with his combination of obsession and ability, they are thrown into chaos and undone.

Such can be most clearly seen in Perfume’s spectacular (and spectacle-filled) third act. In its final moments, the film features two acts of mass consumption, both of which are triggered by exposure to the perfume Grenouille makes from his victims. Whether one reads it as art, commodity, spectacle (or something else, or some combination of the three), Grenouille’s perfume highlights the impressionability and the susceptibility of the masses. In the film, France is portrayed as teeming with people in such a way that it can reasonably be designated as “a mass society,” as a thing “so undifferentiated and loosely structured that its atoms, so far as human values go, tend to cohere only along the line of the least common denominator; its morality sinks to that of its most brutal and primitive members; its taste to that of the least sensitive and most ignorant” (Macdonald 44). Though they differ in specific actions and makeup, both groups exposed to Grenouille’s perfume seem to back up Macdonald’s (rather elitist) claims; but, true to Perfume’s ambivalent soul, they have their way of challenging them as well.

Perfume’s orgy sequence is by far the longest and the most visually spectacular in the film; it also reinforces the film’s deep ambivalence toward its content. After Grenouille is found guilty of murdering over a dozen women in Grasse, the entire town gathers to watch him die. The mob is hungry for him, and one of the guards nervously remarks that they “can’t hold them back much longer” (Perfume). In these moments, Perfume characterizes the mob as an unruly and threatening thing. But the second the people smell Grenouille’s perfume, everything changes. Overwhelmed by the beauty of its scent, they immediately begin showering Grenouille with adoration, and the executioner declares his innocence. Even the priest cries out “This is no man! This is an angel!” and the father of Grenouille’s last victim sobs and begs Grenouille for forgiveness. Almost as if hypnotized, the people of Grasse engage in a giant orgy, which includes a number of legal and religious authorities. Surrounded by the beauty of Grenouille’s monstrous perfume, the mob forgets their desire for justice and is swept up by the desire for collective pleasure instead. While the orgy saves Grenouille’s life and demonstrates the power of his artistic endeavor, it also illustrates Macdonald’s claims that mass culture, “break[s] down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolves all cultural distinctions” and that “It mixes and scrambles everything together” (Macdonald 42). According to Perfume’s narrator, the people of Grasse wake the next day with “a terrible hangover,” deeply ashamed of what they’ve done—allowed themselves to be manipulated and eliminated all barriers between them in the name of pure pleasure—but there is also nothing in Perfume to suggest that they could have ever resisted the power of Grenouille’s creation.

Though not nearly as drawn-out as Perfume’s orgy sequence, the film’s cannibal scene parallels it in numerous ways. After leaving Grasse unscathed, Grenouille suddenly understands that one thing his incredible perfume cannot do is “turn him into a person who could love and be loved by everyone else”; faced with this dark realization, Grenouille chooses to end his life instead (Perfume). To do so, he returns to the market where he was born and pours his remaining perfume over his head. When he does so, the filthy, lowly people there immediately declare him an “angel” and are overcome—both by the beauty of the perfume and by love for Grenouille more generally. Then, like zombies driven mindlessly to consumption, they make their way toward him and devour him until nothing but scraps of his clothes remain. Like the people in Grasse, the peasants in the fish market are also influenced to act in an extreme manner through exposure to Grenouille’s perfume. However, unlike the much cleaner, comparatively more sophisticated mob that has an orgy, those who eat Grenouille are not ashamed by their consumption. As the narrator says, “When they had finished, they felt a virginal glow of happiness” and “for the first time in their lives, they believed that they had done something purely out of love” (Perfume). That said, whether their lack of guilt stems from their lowly nature or from the fact that their cannibalism destroys the monstrous Grenouille is left open to interpretation, as is who precisely their love benefits as well whether the love of the masses can ever be a good thing at all.

Contradiction and ambivalence can be found all throughout cultural studies, in part, because little is simple about the topics it attempts to untangle. Even terms as common and as seemingly fundamental as “culture” and “masses” have come stand for different, even oppositional ideas (Williams 25, 29). Concerned as it is with cultural issues, Perfume too is pervaded by ambivalence. Consequently, accepting Perfume’s juxtaposition and contradictions allows for more complex and worthwhile readings of the film. The cultural problems that Tykwer engages and the world his characters inhabit are far from black and white. Moreover, there is nothing timid in Perfume’s approach to such matters, nor is there in its commitment to engaging a sense usually considered to fall outside of cinema’s purview.

Trying to pigeonhole Perfume—or even requiring ideological coherence or consistency on its part—does a disservice to movie and viewer alike. With this in mind, the prevalence of both mixed and markedly negative critical response to the film may actually serve as a testament to the multifarious ways it embraces ambiguity and the ambivalent. Perfume currently has a 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, putting it just on the wrong side of the “fresh”/“rotten” divide (Rotten Tomatoes). Moreover, reading many of the less favorable reviews reveals that a number of critics have trouble reconciling the visual and technical beauty of the film with the realities of its unsettling content. Many charge the story with being too confused or too depraved to be acceptable, and one gets the sense that some take issue with Perfume’s ugly, disturbing, intensely vacillating subject matter being presented in what might otherwise be a pleasant, lovely, and more straightforward period piece (Howell, Phillips, Rabin, Puig). Instead of rejecting Perfume for daring to “combine[] the nobility of a mythic quest with horror most foul” and for “fall[ing] somewhere between lurid pulp and arty surrealism,” it is far more rewarding to consider why it establishes the juxtapositions and occupies the liminal space that it does (Howell, Rabin).

In 1930’s “Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture,” Leavis laments that “the prospects of culture […] are very dark.” (Leavis 37). According to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, they may never have been all that bright to begin with, not even at mass culture’s very beginnings (Macdonald 39). Either way, the film has a great deal to say, and it is about much more than killing and scent.

Until Next Time
I actually wrote about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer once before, just after watching it for the first time. That was over 2 years ago, and my thoughts on the film have changed a bit since then. Anyone who might be interested can still find that piece here.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936. Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 791-811. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rev of Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. Roger Ebert. 4 Jan. 2007.  Accessed 21 April 2017. Web.

Elias, Amy J. “The Postmodern Turn(:) on the Enlightenment.” Contemporary Literature. Vol. 37 no. 4 (winter 1996). University of Wisconsin Press. 553-558. Accessed 6 April 2017.  Web.

Howell, Peter. ‘Perfume’: Scents of Horror.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Toronto Star. 5 Jan 2007. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Leavis, F.R. “Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture.” 1930. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 33-38. Print.

Macdonald, Dwight. “A Theory of Mass Culture. 1975. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 39-46. Print.

Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Therof.” 1867. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 89-95. Print.

Markham, James M. “Success of Smell is Sweet for New German Novelist.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of  a Murderer (novel). The New York Times. 9 Oct 1986. Accessed 25 April 2017. Web.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Dir. Tom Tykwer. Perf. Ben Whishaw. Dustin Hoffman.  Alan Rickman. Rachel Hurd-Wood. DreamWorks Pictures, 2006. DVD.

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rotten Tomatoes. of_a_murderer. Accessed 21 April 2017. Web.

Phillips, Michael. “‘Perfume’ whiffs.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  Chicago Tribune. 5 Jan 2007. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Puig, Claudia. “‘Perfume’ gets under your skin.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. USA Today. 26 Dec 2006. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Rabin, Nathan. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. A.V. Club. Dec 27 2006. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Williams, Raymond. “‘Culture’ and ‘Masses’.” 1976. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 25-32. Print.

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