Perfume: the Story of a Murderer: The film adaptation of Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume is a stunning indictment of society's attitude towards women.
by Leanne Bibby
The F Word (United Kingdom)
A film about a killer on a mission to murder women and harvest their scents might seem like a rather obvious choice of subject for a feminist review. Nonetheless, there are two reasons why I decided to write this and why I'd like to encourage you to see Tom Tykwer's 2006 adaptation of Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. First of all, it's one of the most unusual and inventive films to appear in some time, in cinemas and DVD retailers currently glutted with sequels, prequels, remakes and other somewhat unimaginative fare.
The second reason I think it deserves our attention is its graphic and unflinching yet sophisticated representation of violence towards women. This struck me as having appeared at an ideal time, as debates on this and related issues rage on. Having not read Süskind's original novel, I'm in no position to comment on it and so this review is concerned exclusively with the film.
Ben Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan born in 18th century Paris and possessed of a supernatural sense of smell. The film's early scenes, as sensuously fantastical as they are grim, follow him from a childhood of unimaginable poverty and social isolation up to the day his unique talent leads him to become apprentice to struggling perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, played to the hilt by a bewigged Dustin Hoffman. Having already suffocated to death a young woman with whose scent he'd become intoxicated, Grenouille embarks on a quest to create the ultimate perfume by infusing the essences of beautiful women - that is, their scents. To everyone outside his reclusive, amoral world, of course, this is a killing spree and nothing more.
Oblivious to this, Grenouille single-mindedly preys upon women for the "sublime beauty" of their scents. Their lives, personalities and, interestingly, their sexual attractions are inconsequential to him. By way of an omniscient narration, we are made privy to his thoughts and fixations as he commits his shocking acts, but I was intrigued to find that this is only one feature of a multi-layered film experience. The restrained and largely off-camera violence is at the tale's core, but ultimately secondary to our view of the women themselves.
Tykwer's dreamlike storytelling emphasises Grenouille's reveries of smell in the presence of doll-like women with uniformly porcelain skins and shining hair. In doing this, it also shows us a culture that holds women to be just that: dolls. Lovely, guileless and almost voiceless, they appear doomed to slip into the death-destiny planned for them and remain largely unchanged afterwards: their physical appeal - the only valued part of them - captured in scent.
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