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Scent Translates to Screen

Posted: January 22, 2007

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There are many perfumery concepts present in the movie. For example, the idea of how to create an accord, an aesthetic balanced olfactive form, with simple elements is examined. As a young boy, Jean-Baptiste separately smells a leaf, a twig and an apple. The camera then pans over to an image of a wonderful apple tree—the source of the three scents. Similar to young Jean-Baptiste’s efforts, a modern perfumer would create the illusion of an apple tree by using a green, woody and fruity note.

The film also describes very characteristic olfactive environments (the fish market, the garden in Grasse, the young lady selling fruits, the lavender fields) that everybody knows. This helps the viewer to understand the importance of smell and perfume to the plot. The two clearest examples are described by the most disgusting smells—the tannery and fish market, both linked to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Without knowing very much about Jean-Baptiste, from these two scenes the viewer already understands that there is something diabolic about him. On the other hand, the young fruit seller depicts a positive olfactive environment—fruity, soft and sweet. This is similar to “Peter and the Wolf” where each of the characters is described by a different musical instrument.

Jean-Baptiste: the Modern Perfumer

Jean-Baptiste has, because of his skills and his lack of apprenticeship, a very modern idea of perfumery. When Giuseppe Baldini explains that an accord should contain four top notes, four middle and four base notes, Jean-Baptiste disregards the teaching and mixes as he wants, using gut instinct and spontaneity.

A funny and scary scene is when he tries to extract the essential oil from pieces of metal, glass, stone and even a cat. This is a very modern concept of perfumery: trying to find new extracts and raw materials that can describe even more emotions and abstract realities. Metal, stone and lava are understandable in modern perfumery. In fact, what Jean-Baptiste was striving to do, but did not exist at that time, is use headspace to capture scent. In the end, he still managed to capture the scent from living things (although they were dead at the time).