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Cinophile: PERFUME

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How far would you go to realise your purpose in life? For  Jean-Baptiste Grenouille it is simple: to create the most divine and holy of scents. But getting there would require sacrificing of himself and others – whether they like it or not. Thus goes the tale of Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer.

Grenouille is born on the dirty streets of 18th century Paris, a septic and disgusting place. He was left for dead, but his senses intervene and he is rescued to become an orphan, then a worker at a leather tannery. From the start his peers – other orphans, co-workers and people in general – are not at ease with him. Grenouille doesn’t really know how to get along with people. But he does understand one thing very well: scent. His ability to smell is beyond that of any human and he even runs out of words to describe all the odors he can pick up.

A chance encounter with a young servant girl – one that accidentally results in her death – pushes him to create the ultimate of scents. He soon finds his way into the laboratory of a once-renowned perfumer and thus starts his journey to become the greatest creator of sensual smells who ever lived. Well, the greatest who was never know. Because Grenouille’s quest will turn him into a murderer, yet to reveal the outcome of that would be to spoil a truly remarkable movie.

Perfume is a divisive film. The book’s writer held onto its rights, refusing to give it to just anyone. He had hoped someone like Stanley Kubrick would direct it, yet Kubrick had called the book – with its incredible reliance on the sense of smell – as unfilmable. It would take more than two decades to develop a script and storytelling style that could do Perfume justice.

Scent is at the core of this movie and the smells almost leap off the screen. A lot of work went into creating a dirty 1700s Paris – including making actors sleep and live in their costumes. As the movie progresses and Grenouille’s smell repertoire grows, so do the tones and palette of the movie. It starts as a dull, grey-blue experience, but by the end is fully vibrant and explodes across the screen. But this is done so subtly that it takes a few viewings to truly notice.

Another trick employed are fast-cuts of things that evoke smells: from rotting fish guts and and maggots to lavender fields and the glowing hair of a young woman. As Perfume progresses, it pushes more and more pleasant aural experiences towards the audience. But at the same time Grenouille becomes darker and darker as his quest to create the ultimate perfume turns downright murderous. It’s hard to pinpoint if the character is evil – instead he seems loaded with purpose and you find yourself in a weird solidarity with his quest. The finale comes as a massive surprise and it certainly one of modern’s cinema’s most remarkable events.

Perfume stands as testament for what can be achieved with visuals, as long as they are used right. The movie can feel a bit glib, especially on repeat viewings. It is clear that some elements of the novel had to be sacrificed in order for the film to retain its focus. The Shining did that and to this day Stephen King hates Kubrick’s rendition. But it’s still a great movie. The same with Perfume – you can pick at its quirks and sometimes thin script. But that would be missing the point. It’s rare that a movie actually makes your senses work purely through suggestion.

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Author Patrick Süskind refused for years to sell the rights to the book, but eventually agreed to do so for €10 million. Numerous directors were tied to the project at some stage, including Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott and Tim Burton. The movie, though English, was produced by Germans and stands as one of Germany’s most expensive movies. It would be a global hit and financial success, but U.S. audiences failed to appreciate it. as much as everyone else.
Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman were the first choices for their roles and nobody else was approached. Hoffman wanted to work with director Tom Tykwer since seeing his movie Run, Lola, Run. Casting for the lead role, though, went to unknown Ben Whishaw. He was at that stage mainly a theatre performer.
A lot of work went into creating a correct feel for 18th century Europe. Perfume‘s creators looked at period movies, but often found them to sanitized. They also studied the work of famous painters known for their ability to manipulate light and darkness, such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Much of the movie was shot in Barcelona’s gothic quarter and the stench of the fish market could be smelled by residents more than 10 kilometers away. The director’s obsession with dirt during the film earned him the nickname ‘The Lord Of Dirt’.
The movie ended up using a massive 5,200 extras, most of whom appear in the climatic third act. Thousands of period costumes were also created, most of whom were subsequently dirtied. The actors were even encouraged to sleep in the costumes – which was normal for the period – to give them the appropriate grimy, lived-in appearance.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: March 30, 2015

One Comment

  1. I’ve seen this twice now and its a great movie, but i wouldn’t be able to sit through it again. Highly recommended


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