Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer offers up a different kind of killer: One who kills women to capture their scents. Yes, this movie is pretty weird and, of course, might not be for the squeamish. This movie seems like a somewhat overlooked, bizarre thriller with quasi-fairytale elements, though I’d personally say this film is difficult to place into any one genre. Let’s just say it could have been called Scent of a Woman had that title not been taken (Hoo-ah!).
In France, the story follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan born (almost appropriately) at a fish market. Growing up as a tanner’s apprentice, Grenouille has a super-powered sniffer, which ultimately gets him into huge trouble. Obsessed with smells, he follows a redheaded girl (Karoline Herfurth) around, freakishly sniffing her scent. In an attempt to silence her screams, he covers her mouth, killing her (apparently by accident). Still enchanted by her fragrance, Grenouille attempts to pursue that masterful scent again in future victims.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer almost transcends normal criticism
Conventionally, with a film like this, you expect some amount of police to show up, and you’d (probably) want the killer arrested. However, something lends this movie that fairytale element, so my own assumptions pretty much melted away, and my perception went wherever the story took them. Not every film accomplishes that. That means this film probably isn’t that realistic, so you might never become standard research material for a facility that studies criminal psychology.
Although I’m not the foremost historian of 18th century France, I would say this film might successfully capture the aura of that era. There weren’t moments that seemed too out-of-place or too modern. In fact, it becomes easy to accept that Grenouille has developed a close bond with smells and that his superpower takes him down a strange and deadly path (what one might consider his “skills”).
Senses as the predator
The strongest aspect of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is the basic premise that scent can create a monster. It reminds me a bit of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart, wherein a man’s driven to madness due to his acute senses, also with murderous and maddening results. More generally, one might think of sharks that can smell blood from great distances (also reminiscent of forensic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter). Or, how about the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, who famously declares, “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!”
In fact, throughout all of the horror genre, the senses play a big role in making people victims. On the flip side, they are also what can keep someone alive. Grenouille is a character who lets his senses control him, to the point where he is captivated by every scent he can experience; He’d wish to experience breathing in the most polluted air, at least once, so he’d head off to a city. Then again, he’d also surely long to smell the manure stench of a farm.
The story does become absurd, but Grenouille’s definitely an interesting and unique serial killer character. Though it sounds over-the-top, people have long been obsessed with capturing certain scents. For example, the pharaoh Hatshepsut was laid to rest with perfume, and scientists were very interested in recreating the fragrance.
Stories like that give the fairytale character that is Grenouille a little more plausibility. Oh, and it should be mentioned that it has a massive, freaky orgy scene, in case you’re squeamish about that. That fair warning aside, it is strangely relevant to the plot…sort of.
What are your thoughts on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer? Let us know in the comments!