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Saturday, June 7, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Tom Tywker
Starring: Ben Wishaw
Country: Germany/Spain/France

Tom Tykwer’s film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is not merely a masterpiece, it’s a miracle. Based on the novel of the same name, this is a story which takes the sense of smell as its center and then ties every emotion and thought (not to mention much of the characterization) in the story to scent. Despite the difficulties that would seem to present in translating the story to as visual a medium as film, Tywker is somehow able to take this premise and create a work of great visual impact. Perfume is a story that should be impossible in this context, that absolutely should not work as a film – and yet it does, emerging as seductive and repulsive in equal degree, a great vampire film about a character who isn’t (technically) a vampire.

Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw in a marvelous performance), born and promptly abandoned in the polluted streets of mid-18th century Paris. Raised in an orphanage until he’s of age to be sold as a laborer for a tanner, Grenouille grows into an increasingly unsettling presence who puts people on edge, though they can’t quite figure out why. What they don’t realize is that Grenouille has no scent of his own, which allows him to slip past unnoticed when he wishes, and that he has such a finely attuned sense of smell that he can sniff out the rocks under the water of a river. When the tanner sends him on a delivery to Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a once great perfumer who has long since entered into a period of decline, Grenouille impresses the man with his ability to suss out each element of a popular perfume. Hoping that he can bring his business back to its former glory by putting Grenouille to work, Baldini purchases him from the tanner and teaches him everything he knows about the art of creating perfume, but what Grenouille truly wishes to learn, Baldini cannot teach: how to distil and preserve the scent of living beings. In an effort to gain this knowledge and complete his masterwork – the creation of a perfume so potent and so beautiful that the entire world will fall at his feet – he sets off for Grasse, leaving a high body count and mass hysteria in his wake.

The key to the film is the character of Grenouille, who is absolutely fascinating despite the fact that he has no emotions, no thoughts, no personality, and exists only for his sense of smell. He is devoid of humanity and greedily sucks the life out of everyone around him, from the women that he murders so that he can extract their essence to the various “masters” he has throughout his life, all of whom meet unfortunate ends at the hands of fate once he has gotten what he needs from them. Grenouille lives only to take and it isn’t until the climax of his story, when he finds himself in the center of an intense emotional experience that he can’t take part in, that he realizes he will never be capable of experiencing what life has to offer because he has no higher consciousness. He’s more animal than human and he slithers through life with nothing but his all-consuming need, which blinds him to the fact that his act of creation is an act of destruction until he's able to see, briefly, what life is and comes to the realization that it has as little to offer him as he has to offer it. He is a blank, yet Wishaw’s performance is a captivating depiction of nothingness, of a creature not of this world forced to navigate it and trying to take control over it.

The strengths provided by Wishaw’s performance are essential, but everything around him offers solid, crucial support. Photographed by Frank Griebe, Perfume is a beautifully rendered film in which squalor and filth are practically co-stars. The film immediately confronts the viewer with the crowded, foul streets of Paris and keeps front and center the poor hygiene and personal habits of the denizens of Grenouille’s world, giving a sense of the stench of scene after scene, even though of course you can’t actually smell it. Tywker plunges us into Grenouille’s world and into his senses as much as possible, creating a visually arresting film in the process and an unqualified artistic triumph.

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