Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tykwer, 2006)

The central characters in Tom Tykwer’s films do not live their lives the way most film characters do. The actions that they take and the events that they experience have a significance that I can only describe as cosmic. Many characters in film are introspective or highly concerned about the purpose of their existence. However, there is something particular about Tykwer’s brand of existentialism. In Tykwer’s universe, human suffering and confusion can be transcended by seizing the right moment, taking the right leap of faith, being in the right place at the right time or finding the right combination. In one film, the gateway is literally a roulette wheel. No finer crystallization of Tykwerian existence could be found. In his vision of the world, we are bounced around by chance. If we are fortunate, we may land upon the right number. That which we gain will be determined by how much we risked. If we have been playing for high enough stakes, the windfall can be nothing short of miraculous.

Curiously, Tykwer has typically built his film around characters that are either on the wrong side of the law or out-and-out criminals. Perfume’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is without a doubt the worst of the bunch. Born into a pile of fish entrails and raised in an orphanage, Grenouille has little to no sense of morality or compassion. As he grows older, he learns what others consider acceptable behavior and therefore manages to stay mostly out of trouble, but never does he seem to a full-fledged member of the human race. He has been blessed with a highly developed sense of smell, and as the various smells of the city assault his senses, Grenouille is led to investigate, absorb and catalog. It is here where Tykwer is able to assert his notion of human lives being largely at the mercy of chance. Grenouille is lead around - quite literally - by the nose.

Grenouille does not place much value in conventional ideas of right and wrong. For him, there are only good and bad smells. It is therefore extraordinarily distressing for him to discover that he can detect no scent of his own. In Grenouille’s mind, to have no scent is not to exist. This realization sends him into despair and makes him more determined than ever to make a lasting mark on the world. If his lack of body odor verifies his insignificance, then he will find a way to manufacture the finest scent ever known to man. Unfortunately for the local population, it is Grenouille’s belief that this perfume must be produced from a combination of distilled human essence. Obviously Grenouille’s goals are misguided and amoral; however, they are also essentially a repetition of a pathway followed characters in Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven leading the way to the Tykwer Miracle, that moment when the roulette ball falls into place and something impossible can happen.

Although it initially seemed to me that the film’s final twenty minutes were dreamlike delusions – and there is much to suggest that they are – further reflection has convinced me that the extent of their reality does not much matter. Tykwer is wise not to dilute the finale’s impact with apologies or explanations. We are presented with a development that flies in the face of logic, yet represents the will of our central character pushing back against the universe that has determined so much of his identity. In the miracle, Grenouille finds vindication, purpose and an opportunity to escape. Although bogged down somewhat by a miscast Dustin Hoffman (Ian Holm would have fared better) and a tired, clichéd murder investigation, Perfume is still a welcome addition to Tykwer’s filmography and contains enough visual delights and provocative questions to be likely to linger within the imagination.



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