Scent Translates to Screen

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” brings Patrick Süskind’s international best seller to the screen 20 years after its initial publication and literary success. Laced with suspense and black humor, the film aims to depict a sense that cinema can’t reproduce—the power of scent. The film is both repulsive and mesmerizing, and it is probably this sensory assault that enables viewers to “smell” the fish market, tannery, lavender fields, etc. In addition, it depicts the job of a perfumer, which is often overlooked by everyday consumers. While Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s method of capturing scent (enfleuraging the bodies of dead women) is disturbing, the viewer gets an idea of what a perfumer’s job was like back in the 18th century and the methods perfumers used to extract scents. Here, drom perfumer Pierre-Constantin Gueros provides P&Fnow with his impression of the movie and how (or whether) it captured the art of perfumery.

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Bringing Scent to Scene

I really think that “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” succeeds very well at providing the spectator with olfactive impressions. While perfumery is not the main theme of the movie (it’s finally a serial killer movie), it somehow describes the immaterial power of odors. The voiceover throughout the movie helps to describe the scents, but the film also makes it possible to ‘smell with the eyes.’ The director uses a lot of interesting tricks to achieve this: aerial shots (to give an idea of volume and diffusion of odors), bright colors (to show intensity) and graphic beauty (olfactive impressions). In addition, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille does not speak often and when he does it is in very short sentences. This helps the viewer to focus on other senses.

Creating an Accord

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).

Overall Impressions

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is a modern ‘clin d’oeil’ [nod or wink] to our industry. Comparable to today’s industry, the movie shows that even in the 18th century when a perfume is a success everybody tries to create something similar to capture a small piece of the success.

The description of the over-talented nose Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a limit. What can you achieve, what kind of perfumes can you create, even if your olfactive skills are incredible, without creativity, the sense of harmony and an artistic touch? Does Jean-Baptiste have all these skills? In the end, I do not think so and that’s the reason why I would not call him a true Perfumer.

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