This is, hands down, one of the best films I have ever seen. Not only is this film an exquisite portrayal of an eighteenth century serial killer, it is a stunning olfactory experience as well. How is that possible you may ask? Having read the original novel version of this film, I knew how important this portrayal of scent must be. The gripping story brings the viewer back in time to the dirty streets of Paris to tell the story of a man with an extraordinary sense of smell. The novel envelops the reader into the story and opens up a world of scent- sometimes enticing and aromatic, sometimes foul and repulsive. I was worried how this beautiful writing would translate into film and I was not disappointed in the least bit.
Before I gush anymore about the film, let me first explain the plot. (Side note: this is not a foreign film and is spoken in its entirety in English.) Beginning with his birth, John-Baptiste Grenouille was shoveled away by his mother amongst the fish guts of the stinking fish market in Paris. No human should ever be able to survive such, but John-Baptiste wails to life. Shuffled from home to home growing up, everyone who came across John-Baptiste knew there was something different about him. Though they could not say exactly what that something was, people were unnerved by him. As a child, he could barely speak but he was blessed with the gift of smell far beyond the limits of humankind.
Greedy in scent and wanting to possess every smell possible, John-Baptiste encounters the most wonderful and unique smell possible- that of a fair young lady. At this tender age of pubescent beauty like a blossoming flower, this girl held the most pure scent. John is so overcome by this beautiful scent that he has but one urge to possess it. In doing so, he unwittingly kills this delicate woman- drinking in her scent, taking in every crevice of her body. The decadent scent dissipates as quickly as her life ends. The intoxicating power of this girl gives meaning and purpose to John-Baptiste’s miserable life. He has but one goal and that is to learn how to preserve scent so that he will never again have to lose such divine beauty. John acquires a secret apprenticeship with Baldini, establishing him once more as the premier perfumiere. But to learn how to capture scent he will have to travel to Grasse, the temple of perfume-making. And so begins a new and darker quest in John-Baptiste’s life- to concoct the holy grail of all scents. The town is swept off its feet by a depraved serial killer with a taste for virgin flesh.
The beautiful voice-over narration brings this intoxicating world to life, bursting with an overwhelmingly breathtaking utopia of smells. It is important to remember that during this time, people hardly bathed, had rotting teeth, and so forth. To top it off, they lived in an overcrowded, disease-ridden city. Perfume making was at its height and to experience beautiful scents was a treasure in itself. In the book, John is an ugly fellow, but the movie makes him semi-attractive. This helps when forming sympathy for this naïve, yet vile, character. At 2.5 hours, every moment is captivating and hauntingly stunning from beginning to end. The ending can be perceived as either foolish or brilliant. I, of course, believe in the latter. It is definitely unexpected but it is a fantasy tale and what is a fantasy without one of the biggest orgy scenes ever portrayed on film? The olfactory experiences imagined in this film create an air of pure ecstasy of epic proportions. Take in this feast for the senses.
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