Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a that rarity of rarities: a genuinely deviant work of art. It’s the kind of film that could move Prince, Oliver Stone, Courtney Love, Tom Ford, Jenna Jameson, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson to tears, and send them home elated and wrung out, with the same thought rattling in their heads: “At long last, someone told my story!”
To clarify, when I say “deviant,” I mean in the dictionary sense: “Departing from usual or accepted standards.” Perfume doesn’t acknowledge, much less replicate, the moral conventions and bourgeois attitudes that drive most big-budget movies (including the supposedly outre ones). Perfume views its main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw)—a poor, orphaned pariah with an uncanny sense of smell who becomes both an expert parfumeur and a serial killer—with scientific fascination. It’s the same attitude with which Jean-Baptiste contemplates his own talents and desires, an attitude conveyed in an early scene that finds Jean-Baptiste—then an anonymous, emaciated tanner—walking through an open-air market, identifying and deconstructing every smell that floats by. Each scent is identified by a macro closeup that flickers onscreen for an instant or two, like the snapshot prophecies that pop like Chinese firecrackers throughout Twyker’s 1998 classic Run Lola Run. Jean-Baptiste doesn’t classify any particular scent as “good” or “bad”; he’s a budding aesthete, unleashed in a gallery of smells. “Everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulating within himself,” notes John Hurt’s sprightly narrator as Jean-Baptiste drifts through the marketplace, savoring everything from ripe produce to dead rats. The film’s attitude toward its hero is indistinguishable from Jean-Baptiste’s attitude toward the world: a scent is a scent.
Hurt’s omniscient third-person account—comprised of fat passages from Patrick Suskind’s same-named bestseller—is arguably the greatest bravura choice in a film with more than its share. In most movies, a third-person narration would suggest detachment from, even diminuition of, the hero; here it suggests complete identification. Jean-Baptiste is a savant artist who’s so attuned to his senses that he has almost no sense of himself. He wants to create perfumes so powerful that they shock people into new states of perception. He’s like a performer who doesn’t feel alive unless he hears applause, or a lover who gets off on his partner’s pleasure but never his own. His selfishness is so profound that it’s almost indistinguishable from selflessness. He wants to give the greatest ecstasy to the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, he can’t do that without killing and rendering the loveliest women in France.
This sounds like a summary of one of the most distasteful films ever made—or at the very least, one of the campiest. Perfume is perpetually at risk of becoming either (or both). But it never entirely succumbs. Tykwer and his screenwriting collaborators, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger, give the story a dark fairy tale energy. Their ecstatic yet precise imagery feels like a third-person cinematic cousin of Humbert Humbert’s first-person Lolita narration. Both Tykwer’s film and Nabokov’s novel are lit from within by a romantic spirit that’s at once repellent and touching. “I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder,” Humbert says, remembering his first experience with a nymphet. “I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid—a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing—and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a prowling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note—and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove—the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.”
Jean-Baptiste isn’t as knowing as Nabokov’s nymphet-chaser. He’s more of a socially dislocated uber-genius, and coldblooded though he is, he has his own Rosebud. In that same fecund marketplace, he became smitten with a gorgeous young red-haired peasant girl—or maybe it was just the exquisite scent of her neck, mingled with the basket of lemons she spilled, and the excitement of those fireworks exploding in the night sky overhead (very D.H. Lawrence). In any case, Jean-Baptiste incidentally, almost reflexively, killed her (Frankenstein’s monster’s mistake) and then tried and failed to preserve her olfactory essence. This bit is the first of many that could have been pilfered from a Ken Russell movie like The Devils or Tommy; the obsessive tone is so extravagant it’s almost funny. In the sequence where Jean-Baptiste stalks and observes the peasant girl, Tykwer’s prowling SteadiCam shots recall the museum sequences in both Vertigo and Dressed to Kill, and the super-lush music—credited to Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek—builds on a romantic/mystical melody that evokes John Williams’ Close Encounters score (in particular, the cut titled “The Mountain”). It’s an oblique homage, but perfect: Close Encounters, like Perfume, is a coded exploration of the artist’s mentality, centered on characters afflicted by visions. Jean-Baptiste worships womens’ beauty by trying to annihilate it—literally trying to boil it down to its essence. His appreciation of that essence is deeper than anyone else’s—even that of his erstwhile trainer, the once-revered and now-irrelevant parfumeur Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). But Jean-Baptiste isn’t a better person than Baldini, just a clearly greater artist—a goblin Mozart mentored by Baldini’s schmuck Salieri.
Perfume’s understanding of human nature recalls 13th century philosopher John Duns Scotus, who said humans are driven by two impulses, the affection for advantage (affectio commodi) and the affection for justice (affectio justitiae). The hero of Perfume has the first affection in spades—he wants to be the best, most daring parfumeur who ever lived, even if it means rendering flesh in glass tanks designed to extract the scent from rose petals. But Jean-Baptiste has none of the affection for justice. He’s never seen evidence that there is such a thing, so the word doesn’t register. He was divorced from morality by his appalling birth (shat out of his peasant mother’s womb and left to die in the bacteria-infested mud of an outdoor fish market) and his grim adolescence (as a brutalized tanner, practically a slave). The film freely admits that Jean-Baptiste is a defective person, but it’s enthralled by his lifeforce and demands that you respect it. That lifeforce is signified by Jean-Baptiste’s heartbeat, which debuts when his infant self is voided into the street. Soon after, that heartbeat becomes the score’s rhythmic spine—its biological click-track.
More importantly, he’s an artist of scent. Jean-Baptiste spends every waking moment obsessing about how to extract existing smells and alchemize new ones. He’s about chemistry and mathematics, hunting and gathering. But he’s neither prideful nor humble about his obsessive, at times superhuman-seeming focus. He’s just a genius doing his thing. His boundless curiosity and stamina could no more inspire conceit in Jean-Baptiste than a knack for sniffing out blood and sensing motion could inspire self-regard in a hammerhead shark. For this reason, other people’s judgments don’t matter to him. Jean-Baptiste doesn’t reject morality, he’s just got no use for it; it’s simply not a factor in his life. The only thing that’s real to Jean-Baptiste and the only thing that makes him happy are one and the same thing: the ability to cultivate and deepen his singular talent, the thing he was put on earth to do. This tendency to equate the fullfillment of destiny with the unfettered right to act on impulse is a trait shared by artists and killers.
Perfume is a creation myth for both. It is not interested in measuring its own conscience, only observing whether its characters have one or do not, then asking whether conscience brings anything tangible besides self-doubt, timidity and rage at life’s unfairness—impulses incarnated by Alan Rickman’s Antoine Richis, who’s desperate to solve the mysterious killings afflicting the countryside, and determined to protect his own daughter, Laura (Rached Hurd-Wood), who’s killably lovely. Richis is so morally outraged that he overcomplicates his own struggle, underestimating Jean-Baptiste by overestimating him; he seems to think of him as a philosophical terrorist when in fact he’s more like a wolf: a lithe carnivore driven by hunger. Like the child molester subplot in Todd Solondz’s cheerfully cruel Happiness—which at one point put viewers in the position of rooting for a young boy to eat a sandwich spiked with sleep medicine—the drawn-out cat-and-mouse between Richis and the parfumier turns the viewer’s sympathies inside-out, which is pretty much the film’s agenda in a nutshell.
The film’s propulsive, often decadent extravagance would seem to be at odds with its moral curiosity. But the two qualities sync up better than you might think. The year’s sickest beautiful movie, Perfume isn’t shy about flaunting its technique—and why should it be? Extravagant virtuousity is the hero’s raison d’etre, the thing that keeps his mind and heart racing.
Nabokov would approve. “I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase ’sincere and simple’—’Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere’—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry,” he wrote in Strong Opinions. “When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: ’Art is simple, art is sincere.’ Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger.