Perfume: A “Tale of Murder and Sensual Depravity”
(Or, so I may still not have actually read it, second from top on Monday’s list of Most Disturbing Novels, but last night I did watch the DVD. The quote in the headline, however, is cribbed from Amazon’s blurb on the book.)
There is a legend (if I remember the details correctly) that a vial of perfume thousands of years old was discovered in a tomb in Egypt, still sealed and intact. The archaeologists opened it and the scent of its contents was so exquisite that, for a moment, everybody on the Earth forgot they were living and thought they were in heaven. The perfume was subsequently analyzed and twelve of its ingredients identified, but a thirteenth remains unknown.
This we learn about an hour, of a total 147 minutes, into the movie PERFUME. Subtitled THE STORY OF A MURDERER — no spoiler here — the movie details the life of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with a preternaturally enhanced sense of smell and, as he determines just about halfway through the film, no natural body odor himself. He, by then a connoisseur of smells, fears this means he has no real identity, while from a practical point of view it also means he can sneak up on people fairly easily. So the movie itself (as is the book too) is one about smells, with a movement progressing from the stinky to the near-divine. Jean-Baptiste is born in the fish market of 1738 Paris, the smelliest part of the smelliest, if only because it’s the largest, city in France. From the start he is fascinated by odors with no judgment as to “badness” or “goodness” until as a young man working for a tanner, while making a delivery in Paris he comes upon a young, just-pubescent woman whose smell fascinates him. Cue in a truly creepy scene in the course of which he accidentally kills her, then strips her and sniffs all over her body — but the thing is, he knows now some smells may be especially desired. This, he also soon learns, includes shops that sell perfume as well as women who buy it.
He now gets himself apprenticed to a perfumer where he learns how perfume is mixed and made. There are three stages in a completed perfume — the initial impression, the odor continuing to be enjoyed with its wearer present, then that which remains after — each of these composed of a harmony of four distinct scents, plus a theoretical thirteenth scent. This is the one unanalyzed in the Egyptian legend, which he learns at this time too, but, as his master explains, it’s only a legend.
Still, he must learn more, and, receiving his journeyman’s papers, he travels to the flower-growing town of Grasse, a center of perfume manufacture, and it is here he conceives his grand plan: if he has no identity himself as a result of having no odor, he will gain one by concocting the ultimate perfume. Learning the process of enfleurage — capturing scents in odorless fats — to augment the more common distillation method his old master taught him, and recalling the young woman he’d killed in Paris, he proceeds to extract the scents of women. Twelve women in all, but then a thirteenth. . . .
Perhaps we can sense where this is going — but what a journey! The idea behind the tale may be fantastic but the sets, the costumes, the details are supremely naturalistic. The ugly depravity of Paris’s slums, the opulence of a wealthy estate outside of Grasse, the fields of flowers, all enlisted to help supply for the imagination the dimension that’s missing from both book and film, the smells themselves. The inhuman despair of the Parisian rabble contrasted with the brightness, especially, of the two women, the young girl of Paris and now, at Grasse, a rich man’s daughter that Jean-Baptiste has designs on for a thirteenth new victim, both strikingly red-haired, leading the eye if not the nose, literally, to the exotic.
And then the ending, at least for me quite unexpected, yet perfect in its own disturbing way. It’s a kind of film that I enjoy, intricate, beautiful, chilling as well but especially so as one recalls details well after it has ended. I recommend it.