Sunday, January 07, 2007

Criticism of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

From the director of Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer left me with a similar impression. Interesting in its attempt at experiment, but it simply doesn't deliver anything satisfying. Technically and artistically, I can appreciate it. Along with most of the people in the theater, though, I didn't appreciate it as an audience member.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer chronicles the life obsession of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw). Born with an amazingly strong sense of smell and entrenched in a filthy life, his encounter and subsequent murder of an enchanting young lady (with impossibly red hair, especially in 18th-century Paris) inspires him to capture scent forever. From there, he impresses a perfume artist (Dustin Hoffman) to apprentice him, performs failed experiments to try capturing scent, learns about a perfuming process that could accomplish his goal and that he'll have to go to another city to learn the process. The movie works relatively well up to this point, except that the characterization of the perfume artist doesn't lead to his actions progressing logically.

After Jean-Baptiste leaves Paris, Perfume falls deeper and deeper into artistic self indulgence that pushes the bounds of the audience's tolerance. This young man, who has no experience or training in the wild, goes into the mountains and lives there until he reaches an epiphany. Albeit, it has an interesting premise, but it doesn't fit this movie or the character. The movie revolves around an emotionally immature character who has lived as a slave most of his life then has had an education in perfume. If the movie centered around some mystic or the character believably knew soemthing about the wilderness, I could accept this bit but. . .no, just no.

Once Jean-Baptiste reaches the place that will teach him more about perfume and capturing scent, it actually gets interesting again. The movie conveys the type of work and the type of knowledge that goes into perfuming. While Jean-Baptiste works with flower petals, a supervisor or teacher praises him and criticizes other students. The movie shows great big vats of flower petals in animal fat getting boiled. The deft presentation of the town demonstrates how much their economy depends on perfuming. Like in the beginning with Jean-Baptiste apprenticed by the perfume artist, the parts that show the town and the perfume manufacturing process, Perfume does a good job of reaching a fascinating level. The myths, the legends, the science, it all makes for interesting stuff to learn about.

The movie then moves on with the plot and, once again, further into self-indulgence and utter audience skepticism. Jean-Baptiste has discovered the process that will capture human scent forever, but it involves murder. Suddenly Jean-Baptiste becomes a murdering and burglaring mastermind that the town can't catch. With such a unique modus operandi, the delay of his capture has some level of acceptability but not enough. Nonetheless, his spree doesn't totally wreck the movie. Not even the cross country hunting down of the penultimate beauty (who, of course, has that impossibly red hair) and her father, Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), destroys the experience. In fact, Alan Rickman (like Dustin Hoffman before him) steals the movie, becoming the highlighting presence, sucking the audience into his character and plight.

Unfortunately, after that episode, the movie falls down a cliff into a train wreck of self indulgence. It returns to the beginning of the movie, when Jean-Baptiste has to face the consequences of his actions by a truly harsh execution. He has a secret defense, however, his perfect perfume made from his horrid process. With it, he charms his guards and the village people who, a few minutes earlier, had entered the throes of ecstasy about his execution. From there, the movie literally devolves into a massive orgy and had one chance of redeeming itself but failed. After a masterfully dramatized speech, by Alan Rickman, about how he would be the last one watching Jean-Baptiste (and I can't believe that I didn't catch the allusion until just now) dying, Antoine Richis falls under the Jean-Baptiste's perfume charm.

The orgy then becomes another momentus epiphany for Jean Baptiste. Watching it, he feels guilt for the murders he has committed and realizes his mistake. If he realized that he had passion for the girls with impossibly red hair rather than obsessed over their scents and capturing the scents, he could have loved and experienced life fully. The movie montages between Jean Baptiste to the orgy to the girl with impossibly red hair, and the audience feels uncomfortable and completely unsatisfied by the conclusion. And the worst part, the movie doesn't end there. You won't get the ending here, and it doesn't matter, because the ending doesn't matter. It just becomes further self-indulgence with obvious meaning but communicates little satisfaction.

And the truly ingratiating thing, the movie actually has some potential. It has some humorous bits. The cinematography enchants the audience and sucks them into it. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman provide stellar performances. The mythology and processes of perfume provide fascinating brain candy and an interesting education into the topic. The movie and Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille even charms the audience after he has committed his first murder.

The failure of the movie lies in the fact that it didn't provide enough characterization. The obvious failure gets demonstrated by the perfume artist. After he discovers that Jean-Baptiste just boiled the cat to death and shows disgust at the act, he then provides Jean-Baptiste with a journeyman's letter to allow entrance into the perfume city. The movie shows the perfume artist as a cantankerous old man but fails to demonstrate his greed. It took that interaction to show his greed. . .but it comes at the moment that requires the audience to have already believed in that greed. Even worse for this defining moment, Dustin Hoffman plays the part with his cute delivery.

The failed characterization of the perfume artist comes off as something paltry compared to the horrible execution of Jean-Baptiste's characterization. The audience sees the inhumane life of the character before he becomes apprenticed to the perfume artist. Also, the movie communicates Jean-Baptiste's ignorance of the world in regards to his lack of knowledge. Having the extreme low level of emotional maturity of Jean-Baptiste remains hard to believe. Maybe his strong sense of smell has something to do with it, but the audience will have a hard time understanding that element without more demonstration. It could have become more believable if before the numerous moments that matter, the audience had seen smaller demonstrations of this emotional immaturity.

Failing to characterize Jean-Baptiste feels especially disappointing because he feels like an interesting and complicated character. The execution in this movie sucks that interest level out of him. Coming from such a horrible past, having an amazing talent, possessing great ambition, meeting the early frustrations of having this talent, emotional immaturity and his failed understanding all make for amazing possibilities. Even his questionable morality, if executed well, could have created a really compelling character and exposed something about our human natures. The movie could have even made the character someone the audience would hate but also someone that would fascinate them, a hero that had reached a level of greatness but falls from grace. I can't begin to imagine concretely the potential possibilities of making this character work, but Jean-Baptiste had such possibility and the movie simply didn't do the work to reach it.

Clocking in at 2 1/2 hours and costing $10 dollars, this movie becomes time and effort wasted. With all the possibility and potential, it comes off as an even bigger failure than a B-movie, in which the makers don't even try to reach artistic heights. Like me, if you're a beginning writer who wants to understand complicated characters and the pitfalls inherent in them, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer might make for some good material. It may even provide a little inspiration, like it has done for me.

Nonetheless, in the end, it doesn't provide a good example of how to execute a complicated character in narrative. To learn from it, an aspiring writer would need to do what I did in this review, tear the movie apart and find the problems with it. As a form of entertainment, though, this movie only provides a modicum of possibility.

12 comments:

Allan said...

IMO, I would have enjoyed your comments more, if I had a better idea what you mean by cinematic 'self-indulgence'? To me it seemed that the phrase became a cliched catchphrase for parts you did not enjoy. As an example, regarding literary self-indulgence, I present "White Angel" a short story by Michael Cunningham, tedious tripe if it ever existed.

The_Lex said...

In attempt to clarify on references of 'self-indulgence':

Two beautiful women in France having such bright red hair that it would require a dye job.

A ten-minute montage of mountain scenes and hair growth to demonstrate that Jean-Baptiste had stayed there soem time. A narrator also accompanied it, telling the audience that Jean-Baptiste had the epiphany that he would show the world that he was SOMEONE.

Then the ten-minute orgy scene montaging with the original beautiful girl with bright red hair and Jean-Baptiste crying. The crying probably attempted to show his momentous epiphany, but the whole audience had the hardest time taking it seriously because of the huge TEN-MINUTE ORGY. Then to top it all off, the Alan Rickman character was overtaken by the perfume, after his extremely passionate speech about waiting to watch Jean-Baptiste die, long after the people of his town.

I'll be the first to admit that these moments of self-indulgence could have been minimized by a lot and the movie saved. The director simply had to focus more on the characters and techniques of characterization.

By depending on telling the audience what to think and the ten-minute scenes of the mountains and the orgy, the audience could easily tell that the director found being artistic a lot more important than entertaining the audience.

Dawn said...

Do you realize that the protagonist's name translates into "John the Baptist Frog"?

The_Lex said...

Really? Any insights into how that could improve my enjoyment of the movie?

Dawn said...

Maybe you should watch it as a comedy?

The_Lex said...

The first third or so, maybe. . .especially with the dark bits of humor.

After he leaves Paris, though, the self-indulgence just further pulls down any attempt at laughing at it. I practically blushed through the rest of that bathotic melodrama.

Anonymous said...

Are you aware that this film is based on an excellent novel? It seems to me that if the film was so awful you would have mentioned the fact that it does an injustice to the book, and perhaps, if you have not read the book then you found the film unsatisfactory because you didn’t quite understand the concept? I’m not sure; I’ve yet to see it.

ps. if repetition was a literary crime, you my friend, would be a felon.

The_Lex said...

1. The fiancee, who read the book, couldn't enjoy the movie, either.

2. So you're saying to understand and enjoy a feature length movie based on a book, you need to have read the book first. Have you not met plenty of people who complain about movies constantly not doing justice to books? Half the time, people avoid reading a book until after seeing the movie because they don't want to meet disappointment.

3. What's up with the anonymity? Can't even have a sign off with an alias at the end?

Mys said...

With respect I must completely disagree with the majority of your premises. At first glance, a movie such as Perfume would seem absurd and appear to have no redeemable qualities. However, if you look into the movie as it is supposed to be then you will find many layers and the exquisite artistry the movie actually presents.

Firstly, I would like to discuss the use of, as you say, "impossibly red-haired" ladies. In literature, and most everything else, the colour red symbolizes desire, passion, and lust. I think it is fitting that the two female characters (Laura and the plum girl), which are coincidentally the first and last of his kills, with the most beauty and the most intoxicating scent for Grenouille would wear this hair colour because it symbolizes his lust for their perfect scents.

Secondly, Grenouille's supernatural talent and existence alone are enough to explain that he should be able to survive in the cave on his own. If he can smell danger or food, then he can avoid or capture it; Can he not ? His incredible olfactory senses give him an experience of the world that no one on this Earth knows about. So who are we to say he couldn't survive ? In addition, both the cave and the mountains he travelled upon are archetypes in literature. The mountains are a higher "peak" where he can see (or in other words enlighten himself). Meanwhile, the cave (or, as a synonym, a tunnel) represent a search deep within a character's self. Hence, Grenouille's discovery of his lack of smell or his discovery of his LACK of self.

Thirdly, Grenouille's lack of self scent is an allusion that implies he had sold himself to the devil to live or that he is a spawn of the devil. This also corresponds with the fact that in the movie scent is representative of a beings soul (also the reason why the "dead cave" has no scent within it).

Fourthly, looking into the background and history of the time frame for this film, you will learn that it takes place at the beginning stages in the Age of Enlightenment as well as the formation and roots of existentialism. Thus, the fact that the citizens of Grasse could not capture Grenouille is reasonable. If you pay attention to the meetings, Antoine Richis claims that they need to place themselves in the head of the murderer, however, when he suggests this to the others they ask him if he had any faith in their Creator. Antoine (who is correct in assuming the murderer is after the female's beauty) symbolizes the beginning of existentialism and Enlightenment, whilst the rest of the council (who happen to be incorrect on this whole ordeal) represents the era before Enlightenment and existentialism.

Now, as for your interpretation of the ending, I cannot say whether you are right or wrong as I think it was purposefully left open for interpretation, however, I believe that Grenouille never does feel regret for what he had done. Because Grenouille is a sociopath/psychopath (and in addition to not having a soul), I believe he is incapable of feeling love himself, though (ironically) his quest created a perfume composed of innocence and purity (the archetype of the Virgin). I believe that when Grenouille realizes it is not actually him the citizen's love but rather the smell, he feels pity for himself. He realizes that he never will live the life everyone else can. He will never have a soul.
-c-

Mys said...

-c-
As for the character of Jean-Baptiste being empty and unbelievable, I must further disagree. The character is essentially a single-minded being. All he cares about is the olfactory world, as is shown when he is lead to believe by Baldini that he cannot capture the scent of all beings. He then becomes sick with an illness that any other citizen would have died from. Once Baldini clarifies that there are other ways to preserve scent than what he taught Grenouille, the Jean-Baptiste become better "within a week" and immediately wants to make his way to Grasse. Grenouille is a sociopath, unable to comprehend even the most natural of human emotions.
And again, Grenouille is a being without a soul. How can a soulless being truly create his own identity (which involves how you spend your emotions) ?

I would love to read your comments about my view of the movie.
:)

The_Lex said...

Wow. I haven't seen this movie in four years. You provide a compelling interpretation, Mys, which gives me some inspiration to watch it again. Beyond that, I can't say much about your analysis.

Admittedly, I have never gotten much into theatre as theatre. I'm more of a text person. I may have missed a bunch not being familiar with the visual and possibly more classical symbols. I've always leaned more towards Romanticism and genres afterward, especially science fiction.

But you've definitely give me a bit of motivation to give the movie another chance on some random day.

Mys said...

Well, I am glad to have helped out some. I really enjoy this movie. Beside Repo! the Genetic Opera, this would be my favourite movie.

I hope you enjoy this movie moreso now (: