Set in eighteenth century France, Tykwer’s film tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), an orphan and social outcast with a phenomenal sense of smell. As a boy Grenouille is sold to work in a tannery in extremely hard conditions. Later, he finds work in the shop of a famous perfumer Baldini (Hoffman). Once he learns all he can from Baldini about the craft of perfume-making he leaves Paris for Grasse, a town in southern France famous for its perfume manufacturing. During the journey Grenouille realizes that he has no smell of his own, and hence, to his mind, no identity. As a result, he decides to create a perfect perfume that he could use for himself and become accepted in society. Grenouille starts killing women in Grasse in order to collect their scent. Laura (Hurd-Wood), a beautiful young girl attracts him particularly strongly, and he pursues her relentlessly as she escapes with her father. When Grenouille finally succeeds at killing Laura, he uses her scent to mix his perfect perfume. Captured and taken to Grasse for public execution, he manages to spill a few drops of the perfume over the angry mob gathered in the square. Brought into a state of ecstasy, the citizens of Grasse declare Grenouille an ‘angel’ rather than murderer and let him walk free, as they indulge in a mass orgy. Although he achieves the social acceptance he always desired, Grenouille realizes that he himself is unable to love. Disappointed, he returns to Paris. He uses his perfume to bring a bunch of homeless drifters into a state of ecstasy in which they devour him.
The fictional character Grenouille is an interesting crossover between a serial killer, a mad genius and an almost autistic society reject. Tykwer and his co-writer Andrew Birkin made significant changes to the literary original, portraying Grenouille as a more human and sympathetic character, and depicting some of his killings as accidents rather than premeditated crimes. Grenouille is consistently portrayed as the victim of an oppressive society; an underdog whose lack of smell is the source of the dramatic conflict in the story, compelling him to murder his fellow human beings. While Grenouille feels no remorse for his killings, he does not derive pleasure from them, thus appearing more a deranged person than a sadistic killer, with some critics suggesting that his violence comes as a result of his weakened narcissistic ego. It should be noted that, even though Grenouille can hardly be seen as a positive character in the story, the people he meets in his life are portrayed with even less sympathy as brutal, primitive and egoistic.
As critics noted in reference to Süskind’s literary original, the eponymous perfume capable of changing people’s perception of reality can be seen as a metaphor of the sublime, thus evoking the romantic ideal of arts as the epitome of purity and perfection. Hailed as the ultimate postmodern novel, Perfume also contains numerous references to Romantic literature, such as Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, E.T.A Hoffmann’s Das Fräulein von Scuderi, or Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. Tykwer preserves much of the postmodern, pastiche spirit of the literary original, while adding Romantic motifs in the visual style: the sublime, colourful landscapes of southern France bring to mind paintings of Philipp Otto Runge, the ‘heroic landscapes’ of Joseph Anton Koch, or Caspar David Friedrich’s trademark motifs of a Rückenfigur (‘back-view figure’) and a Wanderer (‘wanderer’). In addition, Frank Griebe’s photography makes great use of the chiaroscuro lighting technique pioneered by Weimar directors. Numerous night scenes are portrayed using high contrast lighting and some of the most emblematic shots of the film, such as the opening close-up of Grenouille’s nose, or the last scene in which he pours the perfume over himself, are remarkable for their chiaroscuro effect.
One of the main aspects of the film’s style is the visualisation of scent. To deliver the visceral, synaesthetic experience of smell Tykwer uses a plethora of stylistic devices, such as expressive close-ups, fast editing, suggestive colours, camera movements following different smells around Grenouille, digital effects, animation and music score. The portrayal of scent on-screen was without doubt the major challenge of the production, but at the same time it offered new possibilities of artistic expression. Before Tykwer several established directors, such as Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese, considered adapting Süskind’s novel. The major obstacle was the author’s refusal to sell the copyright of the book. After years of negotiations Bernd Eichinger finally acquired the rights. Made on a budget exceeding €50 million, Perfume remains one of the most expensive German movies of all time. The critical reception was mixed, but the film became a commercial success in Germany and other European countries.