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