How can a filmmaker visualize scent? How does a director convey odor? The senses of taste, touch, and smell escape the filmmaker when sight and sound are so powerfully effective. The director of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Tom Tykwer, faced this challenge in telling the story of a young frenchman with an extraordinary sense of smell. While the film falls flat in many respects, and quite frankly stinks, we can detect a faint theological aroma.
Perfume tells the story of a young man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), who is born with an extraordinary sense of smell. Abandoned by his mother from the moment he was born, Jean-Baptiste is tossed from orphanage to orphanage and ultimately sold off to a tanner in the slums of Paris. On an errand for his master, he comes across a once famous perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and begs him to hire him as an apprentice. When Jean-Baptiste copies the latest, most popular perfume of the day without even knowing how to read the labels of the ingredients, Giuseppe hires him to revive his dwindling business. Jean-Baptiste also realizes that his apprenticeship at Giuseppe’s perfumery will provide him the chance to replicate the scent of a woman he encountered in the streets of Paris. When Giuseppe sends him off to Grasse to learn more about perfume-making, things take a horrible turn, as, frustrated, Jean-Baptiste begins murdering young, beautiful women in an attempt to bottle their scent in his efforts to create that unforgettable scent he has craved for so long.
Perfume is quite simply a weird movie. It never decides what kind of film it actually wants to be, fluctuating between fantasy, thriller, or a mixture of both. It moves at a snail’s pace and could have benefited from about a 45 minute cut. Ben Whishaw’s performance actually adds something interesting to the film; however, veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman should really turn in their Screen Actors Guild cards for such half-hearted performances. I would warn you to stay away from this movie altogther, that it has a horrific odor about it; however, about three quarters of the way through the film, it stumbles across a theological nugget.
As bad as Perfume is, the story of Jean-Baptiste’s plight actually highlights a key theological concept of Paul Tillich, the threat of nonbeing. For the purposes of this article, I will skirt the on-going debate between ideas of “becoming” and “being” that characterize process theologians and more traditional ones, respectively. Tillich, one of the 20th century’s most popular and influential theologians, devoted much thought to the question of “being,” of what it means to “be.” Tillich broke the issue down into two factors, “being” and “nonbeing.” From this, Tillich also emphasized the ability of humans to recognize, in their experience, their own finitude. For humans, an awareness of finitude is also a recognition of the inevitability of death. This realization imbues the human experience with an ever-present feeling of anxiety which often causes us to act in harmful and irrational ways. William Dean, in his discussion of the debate between “being” and “becoming,” writes, “Today’s theologians of being find the deepest threat to life’s worth in the moral, spiritual, or intellectual incompleteness that comes from falling away from being, so that fulfillment lies in the communion with being, which gives eternal life, forgiveness, or meaning.” However, the situation is not hopeless as Tillich concludes that the question of God combats the threat of nonbeing. In his overview of Tillich’s life and work, Warren A. Kay writes, “Humanity can escape from finitude and its hold on knowledge, Tillich concludes, only by using the depth of reason, by imagining the infinite. Yet all descriptions of the infinite are expressed through that which we really know, the categories of finitude.”
In Perfume, we see a character who has experienced the depths of nonbeing. Jean-Baptiste lives his whole life never knowing love, experiencing human community only through his worth as a tireless worker for the tanner or his uncanny sense of smell for Giuseppe. Though Jean-Baptiste is ignored or used by those he encounters, he still experiences beauty in the world through his sense of smell, something in which he takes great pride and joy. He recognizes his unique ability, and it is surely this recognition that fuels his dogged determinism in the face of such oppression. When he encounters what he believes is the ultimate expression of beauty, the scent of a beautiful, young peasant woman in the streets of Paris, he accidentally kills her when trying to hide from passersby. He pursues the apprenticeship at the perfumery, in part, to recreate this intoxicating smell.
On the road to Grasse to continue his education, he stops to rest in a cave. He quickly realizes that he is in a space almost entirely devoid of smells and suddenly recognizes that, despite his keen ability, he cannot smell himself. In fact, the young man who can so strongly sense the scents of others, posseses no scent himself. Jean-Baptist suddenly comes face to face with his finitude, and his lack of scent fuels the nothingness of his life thus far. He then ever-more dilligently sets himself to the task of creating the ultimate fragrance, an infinitude of sorts. Along the way, his obsession leads to the murders of numerous young women.
Jean-Baptiste becomes aware of his finitude, of the threat of nonbeing, even though he had experienced a life of near nothingness. His encounter with beauty, of an ultimate scent, is an awareness of the possibility of infinity over finitude. However, this recognition drives him to acts of unspeakable violence and perversion. Thus, if we take this film as an analogy of being versus nonbeing, we also find in it evidence of the human inability to fully comprehend the infinite and our frequent perversions of the ultimate through our attempts to grasp or understand it in finite terms.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (147 mins.) is available on DVD and is rated R for sexual content, nudity, and disturbing images.