Perfume (the movie)

I finally saw Perfume today, and feel inspired to reread the book, and to start writing an essay about it. I actually read the book, on the recommendation of my friend Young Ja, a few years ago, but I can’t remember it all that clearly, and if I am to write on the subject, I’ll have to review it.

In fact, I feel inspired to write a whole book of criticism of the kind I’d like to see, because I haven’t seen anything of the kind before. You see, I want to read a book of literary criticism which starts with the basic acknowledgment that people are mammals, and that we now, as growing conscious of that fact — that we are indeed animals existing within nature — are struggling to deal with this bizarre self-knowledge.

I perhaps have been overstating the case when I say that we should regard the study of literature as a subclass of that branch of primatology devoted to homo sapiens, but I do think that a literary criticism operating in knowledge of, and awareness of the implications of, science, and reading books written in that same awareness (and books that weren’t) would be illuminating. It would also be a way forward around this horrible mire of academic confusion that has resulted from so many litcrit professionals diving straight into the murky pools of postmodernist criticism, only to discover it is a tar pit from which they cannot extricate themselves.

I popped over the IMDB to see how silly peoples’ reactions to the films have been, and found an interesting thread of discussion hinging on the idea of “making love” versus “having sex”. Those people are doing neither thing, in our conventional sense. They’re in an altered state, and have been manipulated by Grenouille. This is why they’re disturbed — they’re not “making love” or “having sex” in a human way, but in a way transformed from human to a more basic, animal form. Animal not in a pejorative sense, but meaning in a way that’s more basically physical, sensual, without the intellectual interferences and so on.

The ascent of Grenouille to this kind of power and his ability to manipulate the masses in this way has some pretty interesting resonances with all kinds of things: experiments in social engineering (all the way to the SS, and never forget, this was originally a German novel). It resonates with what we know about pheremones and human attraction, which throws into jeopardy at least some of what we learned in Church or from traditional love stories — as well as modern films about sexual relationships, in which rationality is still active and in which sexuality occurs in some kind of relation to social boundaries.

Jean-Baptiste is revolted by the crowd’s reaction to him in part because the reaction means a shedding of social boundaries, in part a revelation of the highly manipulable nature of humans, in part a revelation of the shallowness of human convictions and morals in the face of their own nature… in a sense, Jean-Baptiste glimpses in an instant all of the knowledge about humans that we’ve gotten slowly over a few hundred years of science and history. It would be enough to horrify anyone, and inspire their disdain for humanity, even if, unlike him, they weren’t a psychopath to begin with. But Grenouille, without “normal” human emotion or scent, is indeed a psychopath. It’s never put that way, but it’s obvious if you know anything about psychopathy.

And the way people around him use him, and one another, is also vaguely psychopathic, in the way that any unconsidered exploitation depends on a suppression of normal, healthy human feelings — something profoundly integral to societies, in the same way suppression of the normal sense of smell was necessary for many Parisians in the film to function on a daily basis, especially in the fish market where Grenouille was born. The obvious wrongness of these exploitations is one reason it always amuses us when the people he leaves behind die in nasty ways.

Anyway, I probably have lots more to say, but not right now I don’t. I’ll think about it. I’ve been considering doing a PhD in literature someday, and it seems to me this could be a decent research topic, one that could bring literary studies and science together in a fruitful way.

4 thoughts on “Perfume (the movie)

  1. I read the book this January and LOVED it. I am curious to see the movie, because really, I don’t know how it would work. The book is so incredibly sensual, and though visual cues are good, I don’t think the film would work.

  2. Well, it’d be better if the film were made for that cinema in Tokyo with the scent generators — or maybe it wouldn’t, if it were true to form, as everyone would be vomiting in the first scene — but I think the film did okay. In a sense, the lack of smell was an aid to it making sense, since actual smells would be interpreted differently by different people, and evoke different responses. But the book did work better for me than the film did.

  3. Patrick,

    Thanks for your comment. I hope my comments on your site didn’t come off as a punishment for commenting here. I just had to say something.

    I suspect you and I would have inherently incompatible thoughts on Perfume, to the point where communicating them across the divide of our personal understandings of the world might approach impossibility. But yeah, I thought Perfume was well done, in general. Not so sure what I think of it expressing about human nature, though.

    Somewhere out there, there’s a fascinating discussion of how Perfume is really just an olfactory retelling of the vampire myth. Which makes an immense amount of sense, when you think about it.

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