John 19.5. The term has come to refer to any artistic work that depicts Jesus in a crown of thorns, but one of the more famous versions of this scene is Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo! We look from behind as Pilate presents Jesus to the torture-seeking crowds. This is the scene Tom Tykwer echoes as he introduces us to the murderous protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, in his latest film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.is the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek eido ho anthropos, which is what Pilate says when he presents the scourged, thorn-crowned Jesus to the crowd in
Tykwer’s last feature-length film was Heaven (2002), a superb screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski that Tykwer adapted beautifully.
His breakout film, Run Lola Run (1998), is a wonderfully playful existential reflection upon the split decisions we make and their effects on life and death. Run Lola Run literally sprints through our imaginations, its speed compensated by our ability to see the same series of events playing out three times, with different decisions shaping different events each time through.
In many ways, Tykwer’s next film, The Princess and the Warrior (2000), is a slowed down, romantic version of Run Lola Run. It begins almost where Run Lola Run leaves off. Where Lola just misses a collision with a truck on one of her sprints to save her boyfriend’s life, Sissi, also played by the captivating Franka Potente, is hit by a truck. Unable to breathe and trapped under the truck, she is saved by a psychologically tortured ex-army soldier played by Benno Fürmann. He saves her life by giving her a last-minute tracheotomy using a straw. Once she is able to breathe, he leaves her to the paramedics. It is in this touching moment, as the warrior saves the princess’s life, that an epic love story begins. The story continues in a mythic way that transcends the mundanity of Hollywoodesque sex parades in order to face more honestly how love between a man and a woman can transcend their damaged lives.
In these recent films Tykwer is always traversing the border between the mythical and the real. In many ways he allows us to confront the ways the mythical allows us to feel and experience reality more fully. His films are also markedly introverted. He allows us time to watch the expressions on his characters’ faces. The stories are often narrated by the characters. We are allowed to hear their thoughts and, transcending the status of voyeur, we participate in their feelings.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer opened on Boxing Day in Manchester, England and I entered the theatre without reading the bestselling book by Patrick Süskind from which the film was adapted. I watched this film because it was directed by Tom Tykwer, and I was not disappointed. This film retains his introverted style and is narrated in a mythical way that draws our attention beyond the mundane reality of eighteenth-century France to something more primal, more universal. Having said that, this film is a sharp turn from his past work.
There are two beginnings to this film. The first introduces us to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from the shadows of a French dungeon. He is beaten and chained. The crowds rage outside. He stands, peering forward just enough for his nose to be illuminated in the light beaming from a vent in the ceiling above. All we see is his nose as he breathes in. The guards soon arrive to rush Grenouille to a balcony where he is presented before the crowds and condemned to crucifixion. We peer from behind in almost identical style to Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce homo! In this beginning to the film we are alerted to the Christ-like role of this story’s central character.
The second beginning of the film is a kind of eighteenth-century equivalent of a French marketplace nativity scene. It’s most appropriate that the film came out on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Tykwer’s tale takes its second beginning under a fishmonger’s table. Grenouille’s mother births him amongst the fish guts and leaves him for dead, assuming that this child would be stillborn like all her others. When the newborn cries out, she is as surprised as any and attempts to flee the responsibility. As an unwed, unwanted woman of the times she is easily condemned and hanged for abandoning her child.
Grenouille is therefore born out of nowhere with no way to authenticate his birth. He is quickly crammed into an overcrowded orphanage where he is singled out by his contemporaries as an oddity. In this second beginning to the film we come to understand how our protagonist is so different. Our man has special powers that allow him, not just to smell things, but to understand their essence in doing so. As we are told both cinematically and through the characters themselves, the scent of things is their very essence.
This super-olfactory sense is presented with great creativity in the film, as necessarily does the novel. Grenouille is, for example, able to smell an apple flying through the air and duck in time—shades of the X-Men. We are taken along to see what his nose discerns as he walks through Paris. We watch as his powers allow him to smell a dead bird, the maggots inside, and the essence of its death. He smells around corners, inside buildings, and Tykwer gives us this ability too—we do not quite smell the sights, but we experience what it might be like to have a super-sense that would approximate omniscience. We are given a glimpse of what it might be like to know the essence of things.
Grenouille’s gift soon reveals its sinister side. On a trip to Paris, Grenouille is intoxicated by the fragrance of a young girl. He haunts her through back alleys until he finds her sitting at a table peeling apples. Tykwer follows the contours of her body with the camera, bringing an erotic quality to the scene, but Grenouille’s interest in the girl transcends her sexuality. The encounter, however, quickly sinks into the darkness of the back alley courtyard as the young woman becomes aware of her phantom. She screams, just as young couple passes by and then disappears into the night. In a short moment of self-preservation, Grenouille smothers the life from his enchantress.
Grenouille is heartbroken by the loss of this intoxicatingly beautiful woman. His horror quickly turns to desperation as he attempts to inhale the last of her beauty before it begins to fade into decay. This is his defining moment. He now knows why he has been given his olfactory gift. He commits himself to the preservation of these perfect odors, the scent of a woman.
As Grenouille realizes his calling, he learns the perfumers’ trade and soon shows off his talents to a Baldini, a Parisian perfumer played by Dustin Hoffman. Baldini teaches Grenouille, and the viewer as well, that the scent of a thing is its essence, its soul. We have already cinematically seen Grenouille’s intuitive knowledge of this fact, but we needed the words to describe what his gift allows him to experience.
After learning all he can in Paris, he journeys to Grasse to complete his training and learn how to preserve scents more completely, and it is here that Grenouille begins to practice his new skills on local women as the tagline of the film becomes acutely relevant. The story of a murderer is now clear.
At first glance, Tykwer’s murderer is otherworldly and immaculate. There were criticisms that Grenouille (played by Ben Whishaw) was not dark enough for the character described in the novel. But in transforming the hunchback of the book into someone who is potentially beautiful, the audience is drawn in more powerfully by their attraction to this strange savior of scents.
And that is what Grenouille is. He is a savior who understands the essence and nature of our souls better than we do. He has come to save the souls eternally—and what is so compelling is that the scents he creates are the equivalent of ecstasy. The film tells us that it is possible to create a perfume of such power that every person on earth believes they are in paradise. Grenouille creates a perfume with the souls of the women he preserves. They had to die for his task, but this is the price that must be paid. For she who loses her life for the sake of the Grenouille’s mission gains eternal life in the perfume he creates. Perfume, therefore, has an eschatological quality that points beyond this earth to a heavenly ecstatic love.
Warning! I am now going to give away the ending of this film, so if you plan to see it stop reading and come back later.
Grenouille is eventually caught by the authorities for his murders. At this point in the film we are directly linked back to the opening scenes and the first beginning. Grenouille is back in the dungeon awaiting his crucifixion. Now, however, we are able to understand his calm resolve. He has completed his mission and we now await the revelation of its true power.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
What is paradise? How could we understand eternity? One image some Christian theologians give is that heaven is not endlessness like waiting for a pot to boil, but rather, time that is full. For instance, in The Promised End, Paul Fiddes explores the term “simultaneity” in relation to Jurgen Moltmann’s The Coming of God. I’ve always described this sense of eternity like that first date with the woman you end up marrying. You talk the night away and as dawn breaks you wonder where the time went. Time becomes more full and flies by when we are experiencing something so beautiful and good that we absolutely don’t want it to end. It flies by so fast we can hardly hang on to it. These experiences may be the closest we come to what eternity may be like.
In like manner—and this description arises from a Bill Moyers interview with Huston Smith—a foretaste of heaven may be like the climax of the most intimate sexual encounter possible on earth. This isn’t the patriarchal image of the sultan with his twenty Islamic virgins, but more akin to an old married couple who’ve come to appreciate and love each more deeply than youthful sex can ever approximate. The analogy between sex and heaven is about the relational union that our oversexed culture craves so deeply, and which yet eludes it somehow. In this sense, sex is ancillary to the emotional, spiritual union.
It’s difficult to believe, but many monks will tell you that the truest friendships relegate sex, and the best marriages teach us that sex always comes at the full awakening to the friendship and commitment of two people to each other. This is why, as Seinfeld teaches us, make-up sex is so much better than the mundane Saturday night ritual. The argument between a couple awakens them to the profundity of their friendship, and it is the recognition of this emotional closeness that drives the pleasure and power of the sexual connection.
When Grenouille at the gallows faces the bloodthirsty crowds intent upon his crucifixion, he is armed with the power of his eternal fragrance. Before walking on the center stage in the town square, he drips just a few drops of his concoction onto a handkerchief. As he walks up the stairs the executioner, enraptured by this scent,plays the part of the centurion in Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament (Luke 23.47). He proclaims Greenville.
Grenouille faces the audience, takes the fragrance-infused cloth in his hand, and bows to the crowd. As he bows, the scent of heaven overpowers them. In this moment, the crowd embarks upon an ecstatic orgy. This is not a pornographic backdoor sideshow for the voyeurs in the audience. The mythic, fairytale quality of Tykwer’s story restrains a grotesque interpretation. This orgy is an attempt to enrapture and captivate the audience. We cannot smell heaven, but by displaying this mass orgy on screen Tykwer attempts to overpower us with the sheer awe of the event.
Thousands of people transition from the bloodthirsty crowd to a literal love feast as their love for Grenouille spills over into and onto each other. The most powerful moment in this scene is when one of the fathers of the murdered girls (played by Richard Felix) approaches Grenouille on stage. His vengeful anger proclaims that he has not been duped by Grenouille’s tricks. But even this heartbroken father kneels before the Christ figure in tearful adoration. This scene resists its kitsch overtones. The tears of the father are touchingly spilled both for his daughter and out of thankful love for Grenouille.
What is so interesting about the passion event in Tykwer’s film is how he combines Christian orthodoxy and popular heresy so seamlessly. Perfume’s Christ-figure is adored and loved just as Christ is in Christian teaching, and, as in today’s pseudo-histories like The Da Vinci Code, he does not take the cross as his own. There is no suffering in this passion play. We are, rather, immediately taken to the resurrected heavenly Jesus who, as in The Last Temptation of Christ, avoids the suffering of the cross.
As in Scorsese’s film, however, Tykwer’s Jesus does eventually give himself in an act of sacrifice. Grenouille is not satisfied with the coercive power of his eternal perfume. As the narrator says, he could have had any king or pope bowing before him, proclaiming his divinity, if he so desired. But Grenouille does not desire such false pretenses. He wants to be loved for his own identity, not just his life’s work.
Earlier in the film we learn that Grenouille himself has no scent. Although his own sense of smell is so powerful that he can discern the very essence of reality, he himself cannot be mapped onto this reality. He is therefore a nothing, a nihil, and a vast void to himself. His understanding of the world around him, as powerful as it is, cannot illuminate his own identity in this world. Though this phantom savior can be seen and heard, tasted and touched, these marks of identity are meaningless to his own supersensory mode of identification.
In the end, in the last final act of the savior of souls, Grenouille pours his perfume over his own head, echoing the moment in Jesus’ life when he is anointed with perfume in John’s Gospel (John 12). In Perfume, however, the savior’s anointing is self-induced in order to enact a very literal Eucharist. Grenouille enters a back alley covered in heaven. The underbelly of Parisian society is drawn like moths to flame as they pile in upon him, devouring him, literally eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The fairytale narrator informs us that those who performed this gory act felt as though they were participating in the sum total of perfected goodness.
The perverse and heretical interpretation of Christianity’s central figure could cause the Christian to to blow this film off. But the reason I believe Perfume is so important is that its savior is so absurd. The great danger that faces Christianity today is the assumption that its truth is mundane, if not completely normal. As Slavoj Žižek has recently been writing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his essay “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy’” in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Žižek argues that “far from being boring, humdrum, and safe, the search for true orthodoxy is the most daring and perilous adventure.” In other words, orthodoxy is out of the ordinary, if not absurd. Does not the Christian tradition feel this every time it attempts to express itself in secular society today? The power of Perfume is that it allegorically reminds us how strange Christianity’s central character is—even if this is done by depicting him in one of the most sinister ways possible.
The fact that Christians worship a human man who was crucified as a criminal is all too easily tin-foiled over like the wrapper on a Cadbury egg. How do Christians celebrate the Eucharist without even the slightest disgust recorded in John 6.56 after Jesus announces, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”? Have Christians lost the revolutionary feeling in the command to love their enemies? Such an ethics is utterly absurd after the Holocaust. How do Christians love Hitler?
Like all good jokes told too many times, Christianity can easily lose its impact and timing. It is because of films like Perfume however, that Christian orthodoxy can regain a sense of the power of a radical punch line. Christians believe Jesus really did die on the cross. The Eucharist really is a taste of the divine. Loving your enemies really is the heart of Christian ethics. Now more than ever will the Christian tradition look back to the brilliant comic genius of St. Paul: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18). Or, more appropriately in this context, as he told the same church later,
“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2.14–16, NLT).