I absolutely LOVE period movies.
I didn’t always – when I was younger it seemed like period movies were all people with hyphenated names talking in subdued voices in eloquent rooms about things I couldn’t follow and didn’t give two shits about. Maybe it was just the ones I kept encountering, and I won’t name names because that would be bad form.
But something wonderful happened in the late 90’s – a little movie called The Brotherhood of the Wolf. Now I’m not saying that awesome, gritty, lavish period movies didn’t exist before that, but it just happened that that one was one of the first that I noticed, and suddenly a whole new genre of film was apparent to me, like a vast banquet spread upon a table. And as you can’t cram a whole banquent into your mouth at once, I explored the repast bite by bite, savoring what I could, when I could.
Perfume is a movie that fills the senses the way that other such period films do, and I am telling you that with a GIGANTIC disclaimer attached, and here’s why.
The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (“frog” en francais), has a supernaturally developed sense of smell. He can smell rocks, glass, iron, even the smell of the wind itself. However, he does not discriminate among smells; a scent is neither bad nor good, it simply is. He affords equal attention to detail to all scents, and this is where the movie gets icky.
In order to full realize Grenouille’s worldview, director Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) depicts that world with the same exhaustive attention to detail – and man, things are sometimes GROSS.
For one thing, JBG (as he shall be known because I am too lazy to type out “Grenouille” over and over) is born in a 16th-century Parisian fish market. The camera lovingly crawls among the slimy, lumpy streets, lavishes time on every wart, smear, crease and nostril of the people thronging them, and revels in the glistening fishguts. If you are the kind of person who carries hand sanitizer around with you everywhere, you will be applying it during these scenes without even realizing it.
Baby JBG is born to a fishmonger under her stall, on a pile of offal and guts. I’m not normally a babies person (people start passing them around and I find a reason to leave the room–it’s not them, it’s me) but the wailing infant on a pile of tripe, his little limbs quivering with the force of his screams–WELL.
Right from the start, the deck is stacked against little JBG when the other children in the orphanage decide to smother him. But the same dark providence that seems to keep him alive does so again, and the orphanage mistress saves him.
Even for an orphanage in the 16th century, he’s a weird creepy kid, and goes around sniffing EVERYTHING. A fresh, green apple and its tree are examined with the same focused interest as a maggot-swollen rat.
The boy grows into a young man, and is sold to a brute who owns a tannery. I am here to tell you that if WETA had failed to create a believable CG Gollum, Ben Whishaw could have played him. I mean he’s a super slim guy, but he must have been living off of hot air and the color blue during this movie. I’ve never been so worried about an actor, and I wanted to mail a sausage and cheese basket back to 2006 when they filmed it.
I’m not saying his appearance is wrong or unhealthy; he’s clearly a naturally tiny guy. He probably just cut out bread or something for a few months during filming. But anytime he gets beaten up in the movie I cringed and imagined the sound of birdlike bones snapping, so clearly the filmmakers got the intended effect: a visceral connection between the viewer and this deeply damaged protagonist.
Perfume is less a thriller than a story about a tortured genius and the lengths he will go to perfect his art. That he kills women is incidental to his final goal, which is to recreate the perfect perfume of a girl he encountered on the streets of Paris – the girl with the yellow plums.
As much as I hate the outcome, it’s such a beautiful, lovely scene. She’s in her own little peasant world of plum-cutting, and he’s transported by her scent to another plane of existence. He is a creature who has never known kindness, or been touched in any manner other than violence. He doesn’t inhale her smell-he drinks it, he fills his throat, his lungs, his entire being with it. Whishaw’s performance really was top notch, and it’s no wonder he’s an emerging talent these days. I hope he finds his ‘it’ vehicle soon.
Since the subtitle of the movie has the word ‘murderer’ in it, it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that she doesn’t survive their encounter.
While the dirty members of the cast look like they spent their off time rolling in fish guts and washing with chicken grease, the clean, pretty members of the cast… well just look!
That is the definition of porcelain skin, right there.
Naturally, when beauty is depicted in the film, it’s so beautiful that everything could be framed and hung on a wall. The vats of jonquil blossoms from the enfleurage scene, the fields of wind-tousled lavendar, melting candle wax, the glows of oil, piles of rose blossoms – I’m not a flowery person at all, but the textures and whispers of falling petals had me. Seeing them crushed or distilled to make a few drops of essential oils seemed the greatest tragedy.
And that’s a subtext to the movie: that these girls’ ephemeral beauty is so much raw material for him to work with. A human life to him is a thing to be distilled; he is certainly discerning in his choice of victims, who are as carefully chosen as the blooms he picks, and treated with the same care, before they are picked and distilled themselves. And his potions do work olfactory miracles. The irony is that JBG has no concept of what he has created in his evocative and magnificent perfumes. His creations transport the audience to another time in their lives, evoke powerful emotions and memories that they have forgotten, and yet this “frog” of a person has no idea what he has wrought. He is incapable of experiencing it himself.
Perfume is definitely not for everyone; when the film is gross, it’s REALLY gross. The sound effects add a visceral quality to the film that occasionally had my stomach churning. Think ‘nasty porn sound effects’ and you’re on the right track. There’s also plenty of nudity and violence, and the film ends with a gigantic orgy of no less than 750 participants.
I understand that it’s occasionally being suggested by teachers in school now, but only to very advanced, very mature students. You know, like the ones in their early 30s.
Perfume is available on Instant Watch.