Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

[Rated R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.]

Patrick Suskind’s famous novel involves a twisted little foundling whose fishwife mother casually births him while chopping off cod heads. He falls neglected into the stinking charnel house that was Paris 300 years ago, and is nearly thrown out with the refuse. But Grenouille grows into a grim, taciturn survivor (Ben Whishaw), who possesses two extraordinary qualities: he has the most acute sense of smell in the world, and has absolutely no scent of his own. Discussion opens on October 15th.

39 thoughts on “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

  1. Ah, its essence. Yes, the movie is all about essence. I watched it with a perfume bottle close by which helped me respond to essence.

    A beautifully presented and rich film full of weirdness and colour suggesting that even if we had a magic pill to spread love around the world it would (1) cost more than we would be willing to pay, and (2) we would destroy it before it could be released.


  2. I grew bored with Ben Whishaw’s character. His flat affect combined with the serial killings to produce an odor that was monotonous, predictable and offensive since it continued the long standing ‘slasher’ movie practice of showing violence against woman.


  3. I was deeply puzzled by this movie (maybe because I had not read the book or maybe because I just didn’t quite get it :-)) so I went looking for what other critics saw.

    1. As astonishing as “Perfume” often is to watch, it has a built-in limitation: The main character is and remains a cipher. The 26-year-old Whishaw is a British stage up-and-comer (his “Hamlet” got raves at the Old Vic in 2004), and he has presence, all right — he makes Grenouille a feral and sensitive instrument. The character never develops, though. His madness widens in ambition but neither deepens nor turns unexpected corners, and after a while the film bumps into a wall and stops moving.

    Well, the final scenes are unexpected — I’ll say only that Grenouille’s experiments pay off in ways even he isn’t prepared for — but they’re also unbelievable, even laughable. The director stays true to the source novel even when it lifts into a magical realism that works only on the page, and his faithfulness betrays him. “Perfume” is a thriller that Hobbes might have envied, with a vision of life that’s nasty, brutish, short, and alluring. In the end, though, Tykwer seems more interested in scents than sensibility. []

    2. Smell — the most primal and evocative of the senses — is also the most difficult to translate into words and pictures anywhere near as powerful as the act of smelling itself. In Perfume, a coolly sensuous adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s terrific 1986 international best-seller, the young British actor Ben Whishaw offers a potent translation of smell and its effect. Playing Jean-Baptiste, a near-feral orphan in stinking 18th-century France who is blessed, but mostly cursed, with a supernaturally sensitive nose, Whishaw somehow gives his entire begrimed, sinewy body over to the thrall of sniffing. The first time he inhales the aroma of a beautiful young girl, the experience is orgasmic enough to become an obsession, and it’s clear he’s destined to become the world’s greatest perfumer — never mind that his preservation of natural fragrance involves murder. (J-B’s teacher in odoriferous arts is played, with amusement and rouge, by Dustin Hoffman.)

    Tom Tykwer, the inventive German director of Run Lola Run, is a spicy match for the erotically charged novel. He makes effective use of images sliced thin as transparent garlic slivers to convey sensual buildup. And he conjures up a great, fleshly be-in as aroused townsfolk get a whiff of J-B’s infernally perfected fragrance. Perfume misses some of the subtler base notes of Süskind’s creepier, more self-aware original, but Whishaw and Tykwer blend the movie into something quite heady in its own bottle.

    3. The British actor Ben Whishaw is magnetic as the taciturn, sociopathic Grenouille, with Dustin Hoffman doing slightly goofy work as his perfume mentor. Also on hand is Alan Rickman as the protective father of one of the young women Grenouille has in his sights. All parties are committed to the madness of the film, never winking at us to acknowledge the preposterousness, instead focused intently on the story, telling it as though it were real, as though it could happen today.

    The film eventually works its way back to the beginning, with Grenouille arrested and charged with murder, and then you think it’s over but it isn’t. I feel confident in saying I have never seen a film like this one, and I’ve rarely seen anything as delightfully twisted. Its story is marvelously bizarre, its tone is coy and playful, and Tykwer directs it thrillingly. He’ll take close-up shots of noses, skin, and so forth, trying to convey in a visual medium what smells “look” like, giving us a story that’s as visually inventive as his late-’90s underground hit “Run Lola Run.”

    A movie like this runs the risk of becoming too weird for its own good, and maybe Tykwer gets a little indulgent at times. But as I’ve said before, I’d rather have the problem of a filmmaker being too creative than not creative enough. “Perfume” is ghastly and horrific, entertaining and mesmerizing, and it smells fantastic. []


  4. Thanks for the comments! I stand by my short earlier response (for a time I was known as Sir Robert Blunt):

    A beautifully presented and rich film full of weirdness and colour suggesting that even if we had a magic pill to spread love around the world it would (1) cost more than we would be willing to pay, and (2) we would destroy it before it could be released.


  5. I don’t agree with you, Andrewtree. Among this movie’s flaws, I certainly wouldn’t count the acting. Nor did I find it particularly predictable. In fact, I think I was gratefully led on by the director when I expressed surprise at the lengths Grenouille went to achieve his goal. But, since the title informs us that it’s The Story of a Murderer, I guess I should have known.

    I do think that the narrator, though I liked his voice, should have been revealed as a character.

    I found the scene in which Grenouille douses himself with his perfect creation, causing all around to believe they have fallen in love with him, to be wonderfully ironic.

    To me, this was like a fairy tale for adults.


  6. I was disappointed in this movie, particularly the last part.

    I wanted it to be sensual: perfume is sensual.

    I didn’t think Dustin Hoffman’s acting was great. Alan Rickman’s acting was wonderful, but he wasn’t in it much.

    James Berardinelli, who I often agree with, writes:

    “However, about 110 minutes into the movie, everything changes and Perfume turns into an unsubtle Jesus allegory. All the elements are in place: the cross, the resurrection, the outpouring of love, and the ascension. The shift in tone is so extreme and unexpected that it creates a disconnect with what precedes it. Although one would never call Perfume’s first two-thirds subtle, they are restrained compared to what Tykwer does during the third act.”

    Jesus, I completely missed the Jesus allegory. Maybe I need to watch it again!


  7. Why do we use perfumes? Perfumes give some power; sometimes a lot of power. A perfume could draw oneself into the unimagined. The third act is and can no be disconnected from the first two. It is a necessary connection. Sensuality is not innocent, and does not stand on itself as a pure virginal untouchable goddess. Sensuality is a means to power.


  8. Sextus: I did not word my comment well. I did not mean that I wanted the last part to be sensual. I agree; it could not be thus. I wanted the movie to be sensual. This was my wish. A humongous wish perhaps. I love smells; many smells are sensual. And I think the intention was to impart sensuality. But no; none for me.


  9. I found the biblical allusions are what led me to the idea I suggested earlier.

    One story tells us that Jesus was The Christ and brought love and redemption to the world. Of course, it cost a fair bit, e.g., the slaughter of the innocents (compare: the slaughter of the innocent girls?) and our response was to kill him.


  10. thank you Alexandra. I was referring to James Berardinelli’s comment. Like you, I missed the Jesus allegory.

    Perhaps we should watch a sensual movie next time ?


  11. Right! , all movies are sensual. So what do I mean? I imagine a movie like “Like Water for Chocolate” . That must be a sensual movie: Sensual as in exploring sensual experience as part of the movie’s theme. I am not sure.


  12. I have never had a good handle on allegory. Perhaps that is why I disliked this film. Colorful and shocking as it was, I had difficulty caring for the lead character. Acting seemed, for the lead character, bored and repetitive. For the known actors: Hoffman was a caricature and Rickman, with little to work with, his usual competent self.


  13. A great book on allegory, myth, legend and the like is The Dark Interval.

    “The ultimate limit is that human beings cannot get outside of story; we can get outside of particular stories, or particular forms of stories, but not outside of story as such. The world in which we live is a narrative world, created by and in our stories.”

    “Our intentions, our theories, our visions are always confined within both language and story.”

    Three claims of getting outside of story:

    1. “The first great master claim is one which makes a distinction between art (or faith, or imagination) and science (or fact, or reason) and then postulates for each a different language and a different destiny. Having established this complete disjunction, the claim then situates one term in hierarchical supremacy over the other. In our time, it is clear that for most people the ascendancy is that of science over art.”
    2. “The second master claim is that of evolutionary progress – the claim that, if not every day in every way, then at least some days and in some ways we are getting better and better. This is not taken merely as a story, a possible and most interesting way of seeing it, but as objective and realistic fact, open and obvious to the unprejudiced viewer.”
    3. “The third master claim is the postulate that there is an external reality out there, extrinsic to our vision, our imagination, and our intellect and that we are gaining objective knowledge and disciplined control over this extramental reality.”

    “I would say that the most interesting story for me is that which best opens up the possibility of transcendental experience for here and now.”

    “Reality is neither in here in the mind nor out there in the world; it is the interplay of both mind and world in language. Reality is relational and relationship. Even more simply, reality is language.”

    “If there is only story, then God, or the referent of transcendental experience, is either inside my story and, in that case …. God is merely an idol I have created; or, God is outside my story, and I have just argued that what is “out there” is completely unknowable. So it would seem that any transcendental experience has been ruled out, if we can only live in story.”

    “…The classical mind says, that’s only a story, but the modern mind says, there’s only story.”

    From The Dark Interval – John Dominic Crossan


  14. Questions raised by all of these comments:

    1. What is wrong with Ben Whishaw: acting? It seemed a most difficult role and I thought he was good at getting the smell stuff across.
    2. Is everything a story? Is science a story?
    3. What sort of speech act is allegory? Is it more like a joke than a promise?
    4. Does my story have to be coherent? Does it have to correspond to reality? Who writes it?


  15. 3. What sort of speech act is allegory? Is it more like a joke than a promise?

    More like a joke (since it must carry two levels of meaning) than a promise which is performed by saying a specific set of words.
    In saying “I promise you I will buy the beer`I have performed the act of promising.

    ALLEGORY: The word derives from the Greek allegoria (“speaking otherwise”). The term loosely describes any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning. This narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they also stand for something else on the symbolic level. An allegorical reading usually involves moral or spiritual concepts that may be more significant than the actual, literal events described in a narrative. Typically, an allegory involves the interaction of multiple symbols, which together create a moral, spiritual, or even political meaning. The act of interpreting a story as if each object in it had an allegorical meaning is called allegoresis.

    If we wish to be more exact, an allegory is an act of interpretation, a way of understanding, rather than a genre in and of itself. Poems, novels, or plays can all be allegorical, in whole or in part. These allegories can be as short as a single sentence or as long as a ten volume book. The label “allegory” comes from an interaction between symbols that creates a coherent meaning beyond that of the literal level of interpretation. Probably the most famous allegory in English literature is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), in which the hero named Christian flees the City of Destruction and travels through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, and finally arrives at the Celestial City. The entire narrative is a representation of the human soul’s pilgrimage through temptation and doubt to reach salvation in heaven. Medieval works were frequently allegorical, such as the plays Mankind and Everyman. Other important allegorical works include mythological allegories like Apuleius’ tale of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass and Prudentius’ Psychomachiae. More recent non-mythological allegories include Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Butler’s Erewhon, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

    The following illustrative passage comes from J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd edition (Penguin Books, 1991).

    To distinguish more clearly we can take the old Arab fable of the frog and the scorpion, who met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which they both wanted to cross. The frog offered to ferry the scorpion over on his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The scorpion agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. The mutual promises exchanged, they crossed the river. On the far bank the scorpion stung the frog mortally.

    “Why did you do that?” croaked the frog, as it lay dying.

    “Why?” replied the scorpion, “We’re both Arabs, aren’t we?”

    If we substitute for a frog a “Mr. Goodwill” or a “Mr. Prudence,” and for the scorpion “Mr. Treachery” or “Mr. Two-Face,” and make the river any river and substitute for “We’re both Arabs . . .” “We’re both men . . .” we turn the fable [which illustrates human tendencies by using animals as illustrative examples] into an allegory [a narrative in which each character and action has symbolic meaning]. On the other hand, if we turn the frog into a father and the scorpion into a son (boatman and passenger) and we have the son say “We’re both sons of God, aren’t we?”, then we have a parable (if a rather cynical one) about the wickedness of human nature and the sin of parricide. (22)


  16. I do not think everything is a story. At least not literally, only allegorically. Example: my life. A story is told with full details by someone but I am not telling or writing anything, I am just living my life. However, if I am free, then I can say I tell the story of my life to say that I choose who I am. The allegory is this: tell a story=choose freely.


  17. Like taersker, I was underwhelmed by this film. Mostly, I was underwhelmed because I don’t think it works very well on any level… except perhaps with period costumes and some lovely vistas.

    Granted, the movie attempts to be a religious allegory by using certain highlights of the christian messiah story, but these don’t fit very well with the actual story. One stark example is the time spent in a cave on top of a mountain, presumably because it was only here that there was no smell to distract The Frog from a journey of self-discovery. And what did our peerless hero uncover? That his body had no odour after he washes away the body grime. Armed with this new knowledge, he emerges from his hibernation with a substantial beard but the same dirty clothing no worse for wear even after a term of deprivation in a harsh and unforgiving environment. What deep truths about the human condition were revealed here to complement the allegory? A new fetish to stay clean and thus scentless? No. A momentary discovery undone by keeping clothed by dirty laundry that most assuredly would be far from scentless. Perhaps the author’s book revealed something far more meaningful and sensuous than what I got from this typical chunk of movie.

    This may read a bit strangely, but I think the perfume as a substitute for love for god also doesn’t work because it’s artificially induced upon others, versus being desperately sought by those who make up the huddled masses. As the essence of young women – a sacrifice of youth and vigour brutally stolen by an idiot savant and made into an artificial opiate masked as love for god – the perfume simply doesn’t make sense to me, in that it would have the same biological attraction of men as well as women, young as well as old. Yet the attraction to the perfume is either a natural sense response of our biology or it is a response of contrived and manufactured ‘love’. The movie attempts (and fails) to have it both ways to suit the continuity and interest of a good story as well as to reveal something meaningful through the poorly hidden religious allegory. Hence, I find the movie underwhelming on every level.


  18. commonman, when you say that a person writes his/her story with every thought or choice, this still strikes me as not talking or meaning literally ( and that was my initial idea anyway). I do not think that it means that when I choose to eat my Cheerios in the morning and taste the sugary flavour and chew them and find them crispy and lovely, I am actually writing anything anywhere, because in fact I am busy, I cannot write or recount what I am doing. If the is in “Life is a story” is used as identity, then it is the case that life is identical to a story. But that seems strange. Life is experience, perception, thinking etc. All of this experience could be told and then that telling is the story, but life here and now does not seem to be identical to a story. I guess I am talking purely analytical. So when I analyze the statement “life is a story” as identity, it really does not say much to me. It misses the allegory (the one I interpret of course), because when you write a story, you invent it, and so in the same way you invent you own life. The idea “life is story” is to me, a way of conveying the Sartrean idea of freedom.


  19. I think you are right, sextus, that “life here and now does not seem to be identical to a story” – it does seem different to me too; probably because I am both the author and the main character in my story. But at times when I look back on my life I can get a sense of a sort of bad novel, with a beginning, middle, and inevitable end! And with characters, events, pain and pleasure, love and hate, questions and loss.

    When I write a story I am in control of the events and characters, can leave out the bad stuff and emphasize the heroic good stuff to make the main character a real hero. I can also rewrite several times to get just what I want – that’s a bit harder in life where once a page is turned it’s no longer available for editing, except, of course, in memory, which is the real creative artist.

    Imagine a moment for moment Cheerio filled life story. Boring. Maybe that’s the difference: art is shaped and beautiful; life is often filled with Cheerios.

    Remember the Tom Lehrer song:

    “Life is like a sewer:
    What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”


  20. But you are writing your own story, even if you choose to eat Cheerios every day. Your story would look different if you had crepes one day, oatmeal with coconut, raisins & rum the next day. The interpretation of your story is out of your control, but the making of your story is not.

    I appreciate the section in the ‘Times Colonist’ called, I believe, ‘A life Lived’. It is always a wonderful & rounded life story of someone who has recently died, usually told through the eyes of a loved one.

    I wonder, at which point, does one simply live life or make/write the story of one’s life?


  21. “life here and now does not seem to be identical to a story” – it does seem different to me too; probably because I am both the author and the main character in my story’

    I wonder if John McCain would agree. Two articles in today’s New York Times talk about the ‘Making and Remaking of John McCain. Both describe a man whose true story was first lost and then re invented several times during the course of the campaign. While the events and advisors surrounding McCain played a role in forming these various narratives, the loss of who he was and what he stood for rests with McCain. A similar loss or re writing of our own story can happen to any of us.

    Counsellors working with troubled youth will sometimes try to have the youth ‘re write their narratives’ in a way that their ‘character’ is more pro and less anti social.


  22. Interesting, andrewtree; so, is it fair to say the counselor is acting as editor?

    I cannot help but think of Hamlet’s order to Horatio, “Tell my story. It has meaning.” And then Shakespeare tells his story.


  23. Less of an editor more of a ghost writer. From Wikipedia: ‘Narrative therapy holds that our identities are shaped by the accounts of our lives found in our stories or narratives. In practice a narrative therapist helps clients examine, evaluate, and change their relationship to a problem by acting as an “investigative reporter” who is not at the centre of the investigation but is nonethless influential; that is, this therapist poses questions that help people externalize a problem and then thoroughly investigate it’.


  24. Speaking of perfume: The secret of immortality

    Johann Heinrich Cohausen, an 18th-century physician, wrote a treatise on the prolongation of life, entitled Hermippus redivivus. Amongst other secrets of longevity, it claimed that life could be prolonged by taking an elixir produced by collecting the breath of young women in bottles.

    Actually, Cohausen admitted in the last few pages of the work that it was a satire, so any gullible readers wouldn’t have been duped for too long. From Seven of the greatest scientific hoaxes


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