Bright Lights Film Journal

The Scent of a Woman: Perfect Misogyny in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

“The Grenouille of the film experiences an emotional epiphany that does not bring him humanity, but at least makes him yearn for its possibilities.”

Patrick Süskind’s 1986 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, originally published in German, recounts the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an infamous criminal who lived in eighteenth-century France and experienced life chiefly through his highly developed sense of smell. Perfume is a bold foray into the ephemeral realm of scent, a “domain that leaves no traces in history” (3). With only the printed word at his disposal, Süskind’s narrator struggles to represent the unrepresentable: the chaos of odors that attended a historical period long since vanished from the earth. The lush complexity of the book’s language gestures toward the intricacy of the odiferous sphere, but, as the narrator laments, also continually reveals the “grotesque incongruities between the richness of the world perceivable by smell and the poverty of language” (26).

An important goal of the novel, then, is the reclamation and elevation of scent, a perceptive channel that humans too often treat as a base form of sensation unworthy of careful attention and analysis. Yet woven into Grenouille’s olfactory odyssey is a darker journey. His obsessive pursuit of new aromas eventually draws him to a scent that is “pure beauty” (42), making all others worthless. His desire to possess it prompts him to commit multiple murders, and therein lies the darkness of the narrative: not, as one might suspect, in the act of murder itself, but in the nature of the victims, all of whom are young girls on the cusp of womanhood. In a strikingly patriarchal vision of the fragrant world in which the most perfect odors are those emitted by virginal young females, the novel’s pursuit of scent becomes a tired exercise in the objectification and exploitation of women.

Both the novel and director Tom Tykwer’s 2006 film adaptation of it have garnered critical interest for their attempts to represent odor with language, images, and sounds. Yet both forms of the narrative embrace an unsettling misogyny that constructs the province of scent as a strictly patriarchal one in which females become little more than essences that must be possessed. This misogyny, well established by the expressive language of the novel, is reinforced by the film, which deploys lighting, editing, camera movement, and obsessive close-ups to present the youthful women who embody Grenouille’s “higher principle” (42) as idealized abstractions of the male gaze. It is tempered, however, by the film’s recasting of Grenouille as something more than an obsessive malefactor detached from humanity; instead, he morphs into a sympathetic figure who recognizes and bitterly regrets his failure to form a heterosexual love relationship based on mutual connection rather his one-sided idolatry of female scent.

The chief argument of Süskind’s novel is that Grenouille’s unusual ability makes him a sociopath who is forever debarred from full membership in the human race. As the narrative begins, Süskind’s omniscient yet cagey narrator openly and immediately labels Grenouille a “gifted and abominable personage” (3), implicitly suggesting that both his gifts and his abominations make him a worthy subject for a book. His gifts in the complex realm of scent highlight mankind’s tendency to discount a rich channel of perception simply because it is too “base” and “ephemeral.” Perhaps most of us, including the narrator, can agree that this is a worthy goal. Grenouille’s obsessive focus on scent — the ordering of his world, his goals, and his morals around one sense channel — leads to his abominable acts, but is not an indictment of scent itself, merely to its untrammeled operation. Recounting Grenouille’s abominations is murkier work, however. The narrator’s forthrightness about Grenouille’s “arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, [and] wickedness” (3) makes it clear that he/she does not endorse them, and, one would assume, recounts them only so that we can condemn Grenouille and his acts. Grenouille’s obsessive focus on scent prompts him to murder more than twenty-five people. But whom does he murder and what does this reveal about the novel’s ideological universe?

That universe is intimately linked with Grenouille’s character, which, from birth to death, is dogged by the language of anathema. His wet nurse says that he “makes her flesh creep” (11), and the priest who tries to place the infant Grenouille with another wet nurse acknowledges that “a strange, cold creature lay there on his knees” (17). “He [Grenouille] was an abomination from the start,” reiterates the narrator, who compares him to a tick that withdraws from the world, waiting for its chance to “scratch and bore and bite into that alien flesh” (22). Here the word “alien” is key for the narrator’s construction of Grenouille’s character. Grenouille lives amongst humans but never considers himself one of them — nor is he considered human by other characters, except at those times that he wears one of the “human” perfumes he becomes expert at concocting. Grenouille’s ability to disguise himself as a human merely through the application of scent increases his arrogance and his disgust for humanity — and cements his view of the human species as the sum total of its scents. For Grenouille, scent is no more or no less than identity. In the middle portion of the narrative, he withdraws into a cave in the mountains, far from humans. In that rarefied environment, he is freer than he has ever been; his overloaded sense of smell is no longer continually assaulted by the abrasive human scents that constantly invaded his nose in the city of Paris. He stays in the cave for seven years, delighting in obsessive dreams of pure and perfect odors, but abruptly decides to leave when he comes to the sudden realization that he has no scent of his own. This revelation foreshadows his eventual death. In the terms of the novel, his lack of scent precludes the possibility of identity. In the terms of the novel, he cannot exist.

In desperation, the man with no identity — with no existence — resolves to create a scent that will establish him as more than human: “He would . . . create a scent that was not merely human, but superhuman, an angel’s scent, so indescribably good and vital that whoever smelled it would be enchanted and with his whole heart would have to love him, Grenouille, the bearer of that scent” (154-155). Here, the narrator establishes Grenouille’s two chief desires: to have a sublime personal odor (and thus an identity) and to be loved. The first is articulated similarly in both the novel and Tykwer’s cinematic adaptation, though they diverge markedly in their expression of the second.

In the novel and in the film, the “master scent” that Grenouille seeks is a young female scent. Both versions accept as natural a scent hierarchy in which beautiful, virginal girls form the apex. The first of these that Grenouille encounters is a red-haired girl peeling yellow plums in a narrow alley. He is stunned by the odor she emits and immediately concludes that “this one scent was the higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered” (42). He slinks up behind her, drinks in her aroma, and then coldly strangles her when she turns around and sees him. When she is dead, he removes her clothing and absorbs her remaining odor by smelling her body. Although Grenouille is happy according to his own terms, he is detached from any understanding of the girl as an individual; to him, she is merely a quality to be possessed as completely as possible. At first glance, the film seems to offer the same reading of the scene. Standing in a Paris street as he looks in the shop of a window, Grenouille suddenly turns and cocks his head. He has sensed something of out the ordinary. There are brief shots of feet walking, an uncovered shoulder, a pale hand clasping a basket, glowing wisps of red hair, a barely concealed bosom. Grenouille follows, his own feet moving faster and faster as he searches for the source of the odor. Tracking shots sweep toward the girl from behind, dissolving to ever-closer views of her, until we focus on her shoulder, the music swelling as Grenouille’s excitement builds. Finally, nearly two minutes after he has begun his pursuit of her, she hears his footsteps, turns, and her face is revealed. All of the elements of film style — music, hypnotic camera movement, editing — create a crescendo that invites viewers into the pursuit and admiration of her beauty, establishing it as a “higher principle” of the film.

The film departs from the novel, however, in its presentation of the girl’s murder. The Grenouille of the film is not the cold, deliberate Grenouille of the novel. He pursues the girl almost compulsively, following her into the alley and standing behind her as she slowly slices golden pieces of fruit and deposits them into a bowl. She screams, startled by his presence, and he clamps his hand over her mouth and drags her into the shadows as a couple walks past. When they have gone, he removes his hand, and is surprised to discover that the girl is dead. He initially cradles her in his arms almost regretfully, but then his obsession with scent prompts him to sniff her dead body thoroughly, first gleefully, and then despairingly as the wonderful odor dissipates and he tries vainly to gather and preserve its remaining threads with his hands. This encounter is what initially crystallizes Grenouille’s ambition to be a perfumer: “It was clear to him now why he had clung to life so tenaciously, so savagely. He must become a creator of scent. And not just an average one. But, rather, the greatest perfumer of all time” (45).

Using his remarkable sense of smell to demonstrate his potential as a perfumer to Giuseppe Baldini, an aging member of the profession who needs new products to keep his business afloat, Grenouille becomes an apprentice perfumer. From Baldini, he learns how to produce “tinctures, extracts, and essences” (94), but, ever mindful of the sublime smell of the girl in the rue des Marais, he is always particularly attentive to any instruction that bears upon methods for “snatch[ing] the scented soul from matter” (96). In this arena, Baldini’s instruction proves inadequate, and Grenouille eventually leaves his employ to pursue further education in the legendary city of Grasse, the “uncontested center for the production of and commerce in scents, perfumes, soaps, and oils” (166). After a seven-year meditative interregnum spent in a cave in the mountains, he finally makes his way to Grasse, where he immediately picks up the trail of scent even rarer and finer than the one emitted by the girl in the rue des Marais — “not as robust, not as voluminous, but more refined, more richly nuanced, and at the same time more natural,” muses Grenouille (171). He senses that it is not quite ripe, but in a year or two will “take on a gravity that no one, man or woman, will be able to escape” (171). He thus has some time to perfect his skills in capturing the fragrance of human beings.

Grenouille, via the narrator, is careful to distinguish odoriferous beauty from physical beauty as he contemplates the girl’s charms and makes plans to possess them. Laure, the girl whose scent he has detected, is behind a wall; he is not privy to the details of her physical appearance. For Grenouille, the girl’s smell is her beauty, and he is critical of other humans who cannot be so discriminating. “People will be overwhelmed, disarmed, helpless before the magic of this girl. . . . And none of them will know that it is not truly how she looks that has captured them, not her reputed unblemished external beauty, but solely her incomparable, splendid scent” (171-172). Grenouille’s assertion is remarkable for two reasons. First, it is a construction of beauty rooted in the terms of heterosexual patriarchy: it underscores the notion that ideal human beauty, even when it is associated with something as intangible as scent, is young female beauty. Second, though Grenouille privileges scent as the foundation of beauty, he does not divorce physical beauty from scent. Indeed, he assumes that Laure has great physical beauty, even though he cannot see her.

In other words, physical beauty becomes a necessary but not sufficient condition for sublime scent. Most beautiful girls do not have a sublime scent; but every girl in the novel with a sublime scent is also physically beautiful. When Grenouille begins murdering young virgins to collect their scents, Laure’s father, trying to detect a pattern in the crimes, notes: “They [the victims] all, each in her own special way, had been of dazzling beauty” (203). Thus, these girls are worthy of notice only insomuch as they embody the patriarchal ideals of (female) beauty. For Grenouille, that beauty is associated with physical appearance and scent; most other men are aware of their attraction to physical appearance. But in either case, female worth and identity become abstract qualities rather than functions of the unique personality each woman has to offer. Laure’s father loves her in direct proportion to her attractiveness: “The most precious thing Richis possessed, however, was his daughter. . . . She had a face so charming that visitors of all ages and both sexes would stand stock still at the sight of her. . . . [and sometimes he] would curse himself for being this woman’s father and not some stranger. . . . who then without scruple and full of desire could lie down next to her, on her, in her” (200). Grenouille derides Richis for being unaware that he loves his daughter not for her appearance, but her scent. Yet both men — and by extension both the novel and film — are guilty of reducing women to little more than ideal fixtures of the male gaze.

This reduction is more complete in the novel, however. The Grenouille of the novel advances toward his inexorable destruction without regret — only an occasional display of anger and detachment. When he finally murders Laure and adds her essence to his perfume, completing the scent that will make him an “angel” to humans, he does not hesitate. He wants love, but he views it in generic terms. He wishes humankind to love him; he never yearns for the love of one particular member of the human race. He uses a small amount of his “super perfume” to save him from execution for his multiple murders; it changes the mood of the crowd around him, prompting them to worship him and to engage in “the largest orgy the world had seen since the second century before Christ” (239). Even Laure’s father, who loathes him, becomes worshipful and wishes to adopt him as a son. Grenouille has enough perfume to “enslave the whole world” (252), but he concludes that the love of humankind is disgusting and meaningless to him because he is not human and has no identity: “There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him able to smell himself” (252). He therefore returns to the place of his birth in Paris, sprinkles himself with the “super perfume” he has created, and allows the crowd around him to tear him apart, eliminating the physical yet empty shell that had contained him all his life. “A half-hour later, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared utterly from the earth” (255), notes the narrator.

The Grenouille of the film experiences an emotional epiphany that does not bring him humanity, but at least makes him yearn for its possibilities. Like the Grenouille of the novel, he uses the super perfume to save himself from execution for the murders of the young girls; when he lightly sprinkles himself with it, the crowd becomes adoring, eventually participating in an orgy with one another. As this scene unfurls before him Grenouille realizes that while he has human adulation en masse, he does not have a relationship with any one person. He cannot participate in the orgy because he is not capable of making the physical connection upon which it depends. This realization is presented through a wishful flashback. As Grenouille watches thousands of naked bodies writhing before him, the film cuts to a close-up of the basket of yellow fruit carried by the first sublimely scented girl that Grenouille encountered. He relives the moment as one of connection instead of one of possession. He regards the girl and she turns toward him invitingly; he reaches out his hand, and she takes it; their arms enfold one another as they lie down, embracing tenderly. These shots are intercut with images of the orgy; finally, we return to Grenouille, who has tears running down his face. In that moment, he recognizes the value of intimate human relationships and he feels profound despair because he will not and cannot ever experience one. In that moment, he plans his own destruction. Like the Grenouille of the novel, he proceeds to the place of his birth and, using the “master scent” to attract the intense adulation of a mob that tears him apart, destroys himself.

The film’s more sympathetic rendering of Grenouille dilutes the misogyny of the novel by suggesting that females are not mere ciphers to be appreciated in generic terms. The tragedy for the cinematic Grenouille is not that he has no identity because he has no scent, but that he has failed to recognize the value of reaching out to a woman — and experiencing the joy of reciprocity when she responds by extending her hand in return. In the execution scene flashback, Grenouille turns to face the red-haired girl in the rue des Marais. He looks at her, his perceptions moving beyond a mere assessment of her scent. She becomes more than an object that he wishes to possess; she is a human with whom he wishes to communicate. And yet . . . she is still a very beautiful, very young female. Perhaps Grenouille’s shift in perspective has moved him from one myopic view (scent) to another (physical appearance), both firmly associated with patriarchy’s deployment of beautiful young women as its “highest principle.”

Works Cited

Süskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. 1986. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Vintage International, 2001.