Before he took over as Q in the James Bond films, Ben Whishaw was already earning raves as an actor. Case in point — his performance as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006).
If the title sounds familiar, it’s because the film had been re-adapted into a series (now playing on Netflix). I’ve never seen the series because it worries me that I will find it underwhelming after the superb movie version.
Adapted from the novel Das Parfum by German writer Patrick Süskind, Perfume tells the story of a boy born under a fish stall and who would have died like his four siblings before him except for his strange tenacity to hold on to life. This quality of his character enabled him to survive life in an orphanage and, later, in a tannery where life expectancy was a mere five years.
Unlike most people, the boy, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, was without any particular odor. Yet, his olfactory sense was so well-developed that he could discern different odors in any place.
One night, while waiting for his employer to finish his business transaction, a young woman passed by and her scent captivated him. He followed her but she was frightened. When she tried to scream, Jean-Baptiste covered her mouth until a couple was out of sight. By then, the young woman had suffocated to death. Jean-Baptiste ripped off her clothes, trying to inhale her scent which was soon gone as her body grew cold.
Frustrated, Jean-Baptiste vowed he would learn how to preserve scent. He attached himself to a perfumer who taught him that every good perfume was made of 12 essences. He also told him the legend of a perfume found in an Egyptian sarcophagus which, when opened hundreds of years later, emitted a scent so wonderfully intoxicating that it affected the whole world. That perfume, said the mentor, contained a 13th essence that no one has identified.
With his mentor’s blessing, Jean-Baptiste walked all the way to Grasse where he learned perfume-making. After several experiments, he finally learned how to preserve the scent of a woman by cutting off her hair, covering her body in animal fat and distilling the fat. Because no woman would willingly submit to the procedure, Jean-Baptiste killed 13 women to make the perfect perfume.
Jean-Baptiste was caught and sentenced but, on the day of his execution, he opened the bottle of his perfect perfume that sent the crowd into an orgy. People had gathered in the town plaza demanding his death when, suddenly, they were declaring his innocence. They took off their clothes, indulged in sex with total abandon, including a priest (Cardinal?) who had come to watch Jean-Baptiste’s execution. Jean-Baptiste walked off and the people regained their wits.
Perfume is a fascinating story about the stench of the human soul and man’s attempt to cover it with false morality, holiness and self-righteousness – all symbolized by the perfect perfume. The film itself is fascinating for many reasons including how the director used nudity without any association with sleaziness and how brutal murder was depicted with minimal gore. It was disturbing, it was unsettling and it made my hackles rise more than once. But it is beautifully executed with the understated acting and the narration that filled the gaps where dimensions of the novel could not be translated into visuals.
Updated from a post originally published in June 16, 2009.