The film adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume is a stunning indictment of society’s attitude towards women, argues Leanne Bibby
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.
None of this is explicitly eroticised and we feel little, if any, sympathy for the killer-protagonist. His victims’ deaths are completely senseless and utterly tragic. Like the flowers used by his master Baldini to create essential oils, women apparently exist only to bloom and then die. In a key scene, Karoline Herfurth, playing Grenouille’s first victim, lies open-eyed and motionless, as pretty in death as she was in life.
Grenouille’s quest to obtain the 12 ‘notes’ of his perfume eventually leads him to the town of Grasse, and the source of a legendary, unforgettable 13th note for it: Laure Richis (the exceptional Rachel Hurd-Wood). Laure is marked for misfortune by more than Grenouille’s plan: the daughter of a wealthy town official (Alan Rickman), she has caught the eye of a much older nobleman, the Marquis de Montesquieu, whose feelings she does not return. We can hardly expect her to. No older than the 16 year-old actress portraying her, she seems almost painfully young as she places a flower on her late mother’s grave, and uncomfortable to say the least while playing hide-and-seek with the Marquis and having to dodge his kisses. Personally, I found this scene as disturbing as some of the ones showing Grenouille at his ‘craft’.
“The men catch the women!” quips a reveller during the hide-and-seek game, which takes place at Laure’s birthday celebrations. In lush and moving detail, we see the awful contrasts in her existence of opulence and narrowness, loving family life and the premature prospect of marriage. Faced with the simultaneous pursuits of a killer and of an unwanted suitor, her choices and the events of the film’s climax will surprise you.
The film owes much of its power to the performances of its young British stars, who can easily make you forget the presence of such acting heavyweights as Hoffman and Rickman. Whishaw’s Grenouille will be remembered as the early highlight of a promising career and one of the most interesting and complex villains ever. But Hurd-Wood’s performance alone makes Perfume well worth your time and money. Her Laure, rushed from childhood into adulthood (and from innocence into terrible experience) by a loving father who nevertheless fails to understand the real nature of her fears, makes the latter half of the film truly heartrending. I can’t describe the specific scene I’m thinking of without going into spoiler territory – I can only, again, urge you to watch Hurd-Wood’s near-perfect turn for yourself.
Amidst this Story of a Murderer, we witness the self-destruction of a patriarchy. With the vivid historical set-pieces and magic-realism of his macabre cinematic gem, Tykwer usefully re-imagines the way we currently think and communicate about violence, sexual and otherwise, towards women. The film imaginatively presents a variety of dangers, as if to underline western society’s persistent failure to eradicate these dangers or even properly understand them. The men of Grasse, led by Rickman’s Antoine Richis, clumsily head the hunt for Grenouille as his crimes escalate by discussing the killer’s probable motives. They are amazed and, sadly, stumped to realise that these motives are not straightforwardly sexual. It doesn’t take a feminist to discern the comparison between these authorities and their modern equivalents, in view of their frequent failure to protect the women whose lives they circumscribe.
Perfume has been hailed by cinemagoers and critics alike as a dark adult fairy-tale, and it is indeed by means of such a tale that Tykwer portrays a society quick to decry and brutally avenge the murder of women, while ignoring its own treatment of women. The appearance, also last year, of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth to widespread praise is a welcome testament to the value of such adult fairy-tales. Their similar themes of female oppression demand careful reappraisal of real-life problems. The wide release of these films also illustrates the power of the more thoughtful filmgoer. It is my hope that they use this power wisely.