(And an Artist)
Tom Tykwer’s film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has the bones of a cinematic fairytale (with its male narration and ethereal lighting) and the flesh of an Old World how-to-make-yourself-vomit guide (with its slurping fish gullets and fat slathered corpses). It is the only film I know of that begins with “once upon a time” and ends with a massive orgy. Given these facts, the extremely limited release of this film was not surprising, but it is unfortunate. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, living in the 18th century though he is, leads the modern urban dream (whether or not we recognize it as such): He is talented beyond belief, devoted beyond comprehension, and untroubled by the inconvenient convictions of love. After seeing the film, I had dreams about Perfume for a week. Or perhaps they were nightmares. I’m not sure. It is a psychological reckoning I wish more people could experience.
Luckily, Perfume is now on DVD.
Perfume is a classic tale filled with uncomfortable kinks: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille struggles through an orphan’s childhood without the charm of the cheeky street urchin. He survives a brutal adolescence without the sexual awakening of the awkward male youth. And he snuffs piles of women without the psychological exuberance of the cinematic serial killer. He is a despicable, heartless rogue capable of producing artistic works of sublime beauty. But this film cannot be reduced to a dichotomy of liking the art and hating the artist. There are two heavy questions that float to the surface of this film: What is beauty worth? And should we place greater value on ephemeral life or lasting art?
Our anti-hero Grenouille is, as the title suggests, a murderer. What leads this young man to kill thirteen eclectically beautiful women is the desire for artistic perfection. A shortlist of the classic “artistic types” would include painters, poets, chefs, and musicians. Grenouille is none of these. He penetrates the soul not through the eye, ear, or mouth, but by way of the nose. He is a perfumer. The strokes of such an artist are only as strong as their essence. And there is no greater olfactory essence than that of a life cut fresh in full bloom. Customarily, the perfumer uses flowers.
Born with an extreme sensitivity to smell, Grenouille’s identity as an artist takes shape when his hellish job brings him to the heart of Paris. New to this world of myriad smells, Grenouille is overwhelmed by olfactory ecstasy. His nose leads him to a perfect redheaded beauty and he follows her — or more accurately, her scent — home. The woman spies her stalker and screams, causing our hero-villain to clasp a hand over her mouth. As Grenouille waits for a pair of lovers to pass, he unintentionally suffocates the young woman under his grip. Like a stricken child who has crushed his favorite pet, he hovers over the dead body. Like a broken man who has glimpsed love, he desperately breathes in the fading aroma of her face, her hair, her breasts, her stomach, her legs. But Grenouille’s passion is not that of a lover — it is that of an artist. He vows he will never allow such beauty to disappear from this world again.
Thus Grenouille begins the career he is so obviously destined for: that of a perfumer. He studies under the fading talent Giuseppe Baldini, played to comic distraction by Dustin Hoffman. Baldini tells his young apprentice that perfumes are a combination of three chords with four notes each. According to legend, an Egyptian created the perfect perfume with the addition of a mysterious thirteenth essence. Grenouille masters the perfuming techniques of the day, and with his dead redheaded beauty as inspiration, begins bottling his twelve perfect notes. Each note is a woman. Each woman is murdered, stripped, lathered, and scraped by Grenouille to obtain her scent.
Perfume is the story of a murderer. But it is also the story of an artist. There is something enticingly unnerving in the dissonance between the evil deeds Grenouille commits and the beauty he ultimately creates. Grenouille cannot be dismissed as a moral failure: he is also an artist of unfathomable dedication, passion, and skill. He is obsessed with preserving beauty for all time, and not concerned with transient life, even his own. The women he murders are casualties of art. Is this a less worthy end than dying as a casualty of war? Perhaps. But it is this type of question that gives us pause. If we can kill and die for our country, why not for art? Just what is a person’s life worth, measured in ideals? Yes, the good Irish Catholic in me knows I should say that taking a person’s life is never “worth it.” But I wonder how many people are silently rooting for Grenouille as the body count stacks up. When he hits nine or ten notes, how many people are thinking “he may actually do this, god wouldn’t that be something!” The girls Grenouille kills are beautiful — and the final redhead is even charming and sympathetic — but his art, his perfume, is the pinnacle of the sublime. So — is it worth it? Is our country’s freedom worth less because people died for it? I would imagine most people would say it is worth more.
When Grenouille looks into his final victim’s eyes, his own eyes reveal something new. It is not the look of an artist close to his goal, but that of a man close to his lover. This moment brings the viewer to a crossroads of emotion. “Do I root for this glimmer of humanity to blossom in Grenouille? Or do I want Grenouille to shake himself off, knock her over the head, and finish the artistic monument he started?” Yes, such alternatives make us uncomfortable. Why can’t Grenouille have both? Why can’t he have love and be a legendary artist? In order to obtain the thirteenth essence, Grenouille must choose. He simply cannot have both. That’s life. That’s tragedy.
Grenouille is not terrifying because he is evil, but because his evil deeds slide off him as though he were coated in Crisco. If we cheer for his artistic success, even just out of curiosity, we are making allowances for his crimes. Do we all have a Grenouille-like coating, however thin, that keeps us from feeling the pain of our fellow man as deeply as we would like to believe we are capable? Is the passion that drives this murderous artist alive in us as well? Do we want it to be? If this doubt were not real, Grenouille would not be a terrifying character and this film would not crawl under the skin, keeping one up at night. We are troubled most by what we recognize in ourselves, not by what we do not understand.