Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a misleading title for a mysterious movie by Tom Tykwer. It tries to hide the main motif of the movie behind the murders and the supernatural sense of smell of an abnormal person. A person who has no smell of his own but obsessed with the small of others.
The narration of the film also tries to create a fairy tale story atmosphere. It attempts to convince us that something supernatural and superstitious is going to happen. We only need to be patient with the creepy behavior of the protagonist – Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw).
As well as the narrator pays attention to the details of Jean’s life, he is well relaxed in facing the murders and the brutality of his actions. That gives us a clue that there should be other layers in this story.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born as a bastard child whose mother leaves him among the waste of the fish market to die. She did the same with her last four babies, but Jean cries, and his surviving instinct saves him and instead sends his mother to death as a baby killer. His life starts with struggling between life and death and his first attempt to survive leads to his mother’s death.
Jean lives as a slave after getting out of the orphanage. The situation he lives in and his extraordinary sense of smell, present him as a primitive human. After growing to maturity as a tanner’s apprentice, he goes for delivery to Paris, where the diversity of smells mesmerizes him and leads him to a perfume shop.
His first experience with a female smell happens in the market when he follows a redheaded girl selling plums. His weird and creepy sniffing frightens the girl and to prevent her from crying out, he covers the girl’s mouth and unintentionally strangles her.
After realizing that she is dead, Jean strips her body naked and smells her all over. And when her scent fades Jean becomes devastated. This loss makes Jean obsessed with the desire to recreate or capture the girl’s aroma.
Delivering goods to Baldini’s (Dustin Hoffman) perfume shop gives Jean the opportunity of presenting his super sense of smell. He even creates the perfume that Baldini as a master perfumer failed to make.
Later Baldini explains that all perfumes are harmonies of twelve individual scents. He says: “Just like a musical chord, a perfume chord contains four essences, or notes, carefully selected for their harmonic affinity. Each perfume contains three chords: the head, the heart, and the base, necessitating 12 notes in all.”
Jean learns the techniques of perfume making. He creates wonderful perfumes for his master but fails in his tests to capture the scents of objects made of metal and stone. He realizes Baldini’s procedure can’t capture the scents of all objects. By making a hundred perfumes for his master, he gains journeyman papers to travel to the city of Grasse to learn other ways of distillation.
By new techniques, Jean succeeds to capture the aroma of the 12 girls he murders. Then he gets attached to another redheaded girl that reminds him of his first victim. Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is Jean’s 13th murder and her scent accomplishes the supernatural perfume he was making.
He gets arrested just after adding Laura’s scent to the scents of the other eleven girls. His discovery adventure ends here. Under torture, he doesn’t give any revealing information about himself and his motives. He gets sentenced to death in a barbaric style as a serial killer.
What an absurd story! What a nonsense enigma! Many of us felt this way by reaching Jean’s execution scene. The movie doesn’t go the way most of us predicted and it disappoints us with the useless explorations of Jean.
Then suddenly, everything change. Before taking Jean to the execution ceremony, he opens the bottle of perfume he made by the scents of 13 girls. The jailers mesmerized by the aroma, kneel before Jean and release him from the jail.
He wears the uniform of the jail officer and goes to the execution place where people are waiting to see him tortured and killed. His magic perfume turns the execution ceremony into a massive orgy.
In the final scene, Jean goes to the Paris fish market where he was born and pours the remaining of perfume over his head. Overcome by the scent and in the belief that Jean is an angel, the nearby crowd devours him. It gives them the greatest happiness they have experienced and they felt they have done something purely out of love.
The surprising ending changes all we assumed through the story. As in the novel by Patrick Suskind, Jean was considered a child of the devil when the wet nurse found out he has no smell of his own.
When he started to murder beautiful girls, people call him a devil but we couldn’t see any brutality in his killings. Seems he doesn’t understand the nature of killing and sees it as part of the procedure to make his masterpiece.
Actually, we can see more brutality in people around him, particularly when he is arrested and sentenced to death. The peak of the contrast between him and others is in the execution square.
A large crowd is waiting to watch how he dies by the most barbaric style they can imagine. But Jean who can escape from death, steps up to the execution stage and spreads pure happiness to his own haters with the magic perfume. He also sacrifices himself at the end to give joy and happiness to the poor people in the fish market.
Let’s review his life again. He has no father. He never marries any woman. He gifts divine happiness to people who love to watch his death and at the end, he sacrifices himself by giving his blood and flesh to people. And then he disappears.
No doubt it reminds us of Jesus Christ and his sacrifices. More than Jean’s final acts, we can find other signs and symbols to make Jean look like a prophet. On his way to Grasse, Jean decides to exile himself from society and isolate himself in a cave.
Mountains and caves have been special places for Abrahamic prophets. Moses went to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Jesus went to the mountain every time he was facing a crisis or had to make a significant decision. And a cave in Mount Hira (near Mecca) is the location where Muhammad received his revelations from Allah SWT through the angel Gabriel.
Even the number of 13 for his murders is the same as Jesus’ 13 apostles (including Saint Matthias who replaced Judas Iscariot). It also matches the 13 Bible verses about killing the innocent.
None of these can be a coincidence. These signs and symbols may give us a better understanding of Jean’s actions in his short life. Even his dream of the first redheaded girl on the execution stage reminds me of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Even though knowing and accepting all these interpretations, don’t lead us to a certain meaning of Perfume, The Story of a Murderer. We may accept it as a post-modernist story with naturalistic descriptions that don’t need to clarify a certain meaning but inspires us with multiple interpretations.