In Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Dustin Hoffman plays Giuseppe Baldini, a spent perfumer whose days in Paris were once more profitable. Set in 18th Century France, there is something half comical about the wig he wears and the foundation that whitens his face. For Baldini, the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is a jolt. A young man who works in a tannery, Grenouille has a better nose, maybe even the best nose in the city.
There’s a manic energy with which he turns the perfumer’s laboratory upside down, creating for him a scent whose formula has proved impossible to decipher. Grenouille, a man without an education, might not know the names of essential oils, but he can instinctively tell the precise quantity of rosemary and patchouli that is required to make a perfect perfume. Grenouille’s talent is raw. Baldini’s experience is conditioned.
Hoffman’s initial reticence and Whishaw’s vigour make the scene memorable, but it is through their master-disciple relationship that director Tom Tykwer outlines his film’s theme
Hoffman’s initial reticence and Whishaw’s vigour make the scene memorable, but it is through their master-disciple relationship that director Tom Tykwer outlines his film’s theme – if art has a capacity that is both redemptive and transcendental, how much of a price can be paid for it? An adaptation of Perfume, a cult 1985 novel by Patrick Süskind, the film largely remains true to the book. Musicians like Kurt Cobain have referred to the novel as their ‘favourite’, and given the book’s radicalism, its influence is hardly surprising. Süskind is a hard act to better, but Tykwer thankfully has not flinched.
Ben Whishaw captures Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s menace and naiveté deftly
Perfume begins with Grenouille being sentenced to the gallows. The film that follows is a flashback. The title drops a hint. His story is the story of a murderer. Grenouille wants to preserve the scent of virgins, all of whom he has to first carefully kill.
Strangely, however, it is hard to be repelled by this serial killer, even when he covers corpses in animal fat. Whishaw captures Grenouille’s menace and naiveté deftly. There is something almost unworldly about his obsessions, and a voiceover describes our predicament with telling precision – “It is not that they hated him. They felt unnerved by him.”
Killing defines the periphery of moral systems. The film’s narrative then subverts it
Taking Perfume literally would be doing it a disservice. Art, any good art for that matter, ought to concern itself with the essence of people. To capture that essence, some would argue, people need to be exhausted. The murders are an allegory for exactly this exhaustion. Killing defines the periphery of moral systems. The film’s narrative then subverts it.
Perfume, it can be said, is a movie of two parts. The first, set in Paris, sees Grenouille as a student, learning the smells of the world. The second, set in Grasse, sees him horrify a town with his blade. All this leads up to the film’s climax, which does not just surprise us or destabilise our ethical expectations, it also helps transform them.
To centre a film round scent seems like a task that isn’t just difficult but also impossible. The film’s editing, reliant at times on slickly cut montages, makes odour entirely palpable. Baldini, who believed that the “soul of all beings is their scent”, once tells Grenouille the story of a perfume that was released from an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. “For one single moment,” he says, “everyone believed they were in paradise.” The escape Perfume offers may not be divine, but it is as effective.