When I first saw this film starring a breaking out Ben Wishaw, I was duly intoxicated. Perfume: The Story of A Murderer was adapted from the 1985 novel in 2006. As the years have passed, it’s remained in my memory as an enchanting dark fairy tale often brought up in tones of reverie with writer friends.
We watched it again and I am pained to say it does not hold up.
Now Jean-Baptiste’s pursuit of capturing scent struck a wholly different chord. I watched as the would-be perfumer, desperate to truly trap the scent of a women, becomes a serial killer stripping women of their scent and their life. Now all I could see was the women. They were mere props and incidental damage in this Poor Unfortunate White Man’s pursuit of his personal greatness; his art. The women have no agency, no names, no value beyond what he extracts.
His first murder occurs because he follows a woman whose scent enraptures him and when he doesn’t understand how to speak to her like a human, she screams and he silences her – oops, suffocates her. But it’s OK because he had a rough childhood and we know he’s special. Who was she? JP later extracts women’s scents by killing them after an uppity prostitute tries to assert a boundary with him. She demands consent and he kills her. This was getting really uncomfortable.
The film posits that only pretty, young girls have worth because that is all JP chooses. So beauty has a smell? It also posits that this smell is so powerful, it can take over a town and, by extension, mankind. JP learns in the end that it was not the smell at all, but the promise of love he’d been enchanted by and he hadn’t understood that because he had such a Poor Unfortunate Childhood and was Special. So the upshot is: none of the women had to die at all, oops! And really, once he understands the extraction method, none of them would have had to die anyway if he’d just gotten consent. But that requires conversation and valuing women as humans. And hey, as long as a Special White Man accomplishes his dream, right?
As I watched this film a second time, the breathtaking cinematography drew me in again. And Ben’s great performance. And I found myself mortified that I hadn’t seen all these issues before; that I had bought into the dream, as intoxicated as JP. That is the scary part. We have been so conditioned to rally behind the dream of the Special White Man, we will overlook the cost paid by the women in his way. I am glad we’re waking up.