When Perfume starts, the setting, 17th c. Paris, is so naturalistically presented that it seems ten times filthier than an Indian railway station. Tom Tykwer does not make concessions to portray a natal fish market as merely more welcoming than a coffin. When the lady merchant suddenly gives birth, under her workbench, the case is quickly solved: a few seconds of effort, the tiny body is expulsed, a brief cut of the umbilical cord with the fish knife and by a careless and nonchalant push of her left foot, the newborn ends near the worms crawling on the grimy floor. Tykwer’s naturalism is not only stylistic, through his sophisticated blend of close shots, high pitch rhythms and an ice cold white balance, it is also one of a more sociological nature, one that admits the scarcity of life in an survival-of-the-fittest environment filled with deadly diseases. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) was not supposed to live, but he succumbed to the temptation and inhaled his first breath. Le mal est fait, the harm was done: smell would be his secret, a sense he received incredibly developed. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille grows as an orphan, learning the hard tricks of life in an unfriendly milieu. Sold 10 francs by the orphanage director, he becomes a tanner apprentice. His hard labour allows him the promotion of being one of the delivery-boys to high-end clients in the capital. Literally captured by a perfume, he follows a charming fruit seller (Karoline Herfurth) and unintentionally kills her. The shock is direct: her scent has disappeared. Smells, the only things he really knows and for which he has a gift, are transient. If he cannot find a way to capture such smells, his life is aimless, tasteless. Smell-less.
Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), an aged Italian perfumer working in Paris, survives on an old and forgotten fame. One day, for his regular delivery of leather, he comes across a strange transporter. Without shame or timidity, the uneducated, dirty Grenouille gives a lesson of olfactory composition to the Master. Grenouille’s talent is raw, messy, unlettered. He deciphers the secrets of the latest perfume of Baldini’s sworn concurrent, comme si de rien, as if it was nothing, which offers him to become the assistant of the Master. The young man spares none of his magical intuitions in exchange of the erudite and technical knowledge of Baldini. But the promise of the latter – teaching his apprentice to capture and retain any smell – uncovers as a lie, or rather, a misunderstanding. Even through distillation, one cannot get any nasal flavour from a stone, a piece of glass or a cat. Second disillusion for our hero: Baldini’s technique would not suffice to keep hold of the scent of his romantic partners.
Baldini tells Grenouille that there is an Eldorado of smells, the little city of Grasse, in the south of France. On his way, he is breath-taken by the odour of a bourgeois lady, Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Once at Grasse, Grenouille continues his experimentations and finds a technique to retain the smell of human beings, which leads him, naturally, to his final Machiavellian chef-d’oeuvre: the ultimate smell, composed of the scent of twelve beautiful young ladies, with the touch of a thirteenth, the deliciously sublime Laura Richis.
The poor merchants see him as an angel; “I love you”, one lady says with great inspiration, and he offers his body to the middle-sized group, in an incomprehensible act of cannibalistic suicide. Tykwer found a way to make one absurd meet another, even more absurd; in the meantime the narrator concludes: “of his whole life, such was the only thing that Grenouille did by love”.
Perfume is the story of an extraordinary nose in the history of perfume. In the long history of smells, humans have tried all subterfuges to find solutions in order to bottle the unique smell that life can sometimes offer. It makes no doubt that a bunch of young women, unluckily too charming, have paid the price of their own life, for the benefit of the too often twisted minds of perfume creators. To this extent, Perfume appears as an aesthetically refined and convincing portrait of one of such heroes. Tykwer complexifies the scenes and troubles the genres: set in a real city, in an era accurately depicted, and with mention of famous, living characters like the Marquis de Montesquieu, the director flirts with the impression of a historical story. But the black screen falls and the credits unveil the truth: our story was based on a novel by Patrick Süskind. In fact, one could have guessed the fictional nature of the fable by the final turn of the movie. Empowered by his criminal perfume, Grenouille seduces each and everyone around him, and finds a way out from an unavoidable death sentence. The crowd trades its bestial thirst for vengeance for a sudden new-age cult of Grenouille. From the central stage, he raises his arms as he unleashes the perfume, provoking a trance in the audience: every single individual simultaneously partakes in a gigantic orgy, the bishop included. “The people woke up with a terrible hangover,” the narrator says, “and they all decided to erase from their memory this instant of uncontrolled lust, so far away from their chaste values”. And Grenouille to escape again, one last time, to return to his native market in Paris. The poor merchants see him as an angel; “I love you”, one lady says with great inspiration, and he offers his body to the middle-sized group, in an incomprehensible act of cannibalistic suicide. Tykwer found a way to make one absurd meet another, even more absurd; in the meantime the narrator concludes: “of his whole life, such was the only thing that Grenouille did by love”.
There is something fundamentally frustrating and indolent in Süskind’s story. The problem with the ending of his tale, otherwise believable and rather interesting, is that he suddenly falls into two absurdly simplistic positions: that the scent of a young woman is the ultimate smell, and that sex is the most natural, or rather, bestial response of humans in contact with such a perfect smell. This is, after all, a rather conventional and retrograde hedonistic approach of the senses, if one were to generalize the paradigm. In this view, life is reducible to smells or senses, whose secrets unveil in the act of control-less luxury. This not very original message has some value, but Süskind and Tykwer decide to address it in a mix of genres, in a sort of historical tragedy turning sci-fi. The writer and the director do to a story on smell what musicians call a cacophony: the conjunction of elements that fundamentally do not go together. Or, in one final word, Süskind and Tykwer offer a visual representation of what Grenouille would have never dared doing to his perfumes: a cacolfacty.
Image courtesy: Grafilabs