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Literature / Perfume

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"The soul of beings is their scent."
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille

A 1985 Gothic novel by Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (or Das Parfum. Die Geschichte eines Mörders in the original German) tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan and a sociopath born into 18th century France. It turns out that Grenouille has an extraordinary sense of smell, but, curiously, he himself has no body odour.

Fittingly enough he becomes a perfumer, eagerly learning various methods to extract the smell from all kinds of things. It is then when he decides to create the most perfect perfume ever by capturing the scents of beautiful virgin girls, a fragrance so intoxicating that all who smell it will feel like they've gone to heaven. Of course, Grenouille has to keep this noble artistic vision a secret from society, as extracting a girl's scent requires killing her.

It was adapted into a 2006 film: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, directed by Tom Tykwer, most known for his film Run Lola Run. The film stars Ben Whishaw as Grenouille; Dustin Hoffman as Baldini, the perfumer who teaches him the basics of the trade; Rachel Hurd-Wood as Laura Richis, an imperilled young lady in Grenouille's sights; and Alan Rickman as Antoine Richis, Laura's protective father.

In 2018 a TV series was based on the book, but with the twist of being a contemporary crime thriller about a group of people potentially being inspired by the book and movie to try and make the Perfume Of Love.

The book and film Perfume provide examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Grenouille covers the Plum Girl's mouth with his hands to quiet her only to accidentally strangle her to death.
  • Animals Hate Him: Subverted: The watchdog ignores Grenouille because he has no scent.
  • Arranged Marriage: Laura is arranged to be married by her father to a wealthy, handsome, and apparently loving man. She's apprehensive about the arrangement.
  • Author Appeal: Both authour Süskind and director Tykwer seem to have a thing for redheads.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Subverted. Grenouille kills Laura, creates his perfume, and escapes execution. However, he finds that his perfume doesn't grant him happiness. He resolves to kill himself instead.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: In the book, Grenouille kills various animals while trying to perfect the art of capturing a living being's scent. In one case, he steals a litter of puppies from a mother dog, extracts their scent, and considers the experiment a success when the dog is fooled into thinking they're near. In the movie, he kills Baldini's cat for the experiment.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Grenouille is unattractive and a murderer. In the book Grenouille is a deformed, troll-like man, while in the movie he's Hollywood Homely. The beautiful virgins are all, apparently, virtuous.
  • Beneath Notice: Grenouille, due to his lack of scent.
  • Book Dumb: Grenouille is quite intelligent, but was raised as a tanner's apprentice and has no education.
  • Catapult Nightmare: At one point Grenouille has a dream about his first victim and wakes up this way.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: After Grenouille is captured, he's suspended upside down and his head is dipped into water for periods of time. He’s also sentenced to be publicly tortured before execution.
  • Crapsack World: Literally so. Eighteenth-century France is portrayed as a disease-ridden, scandalously unequal, war-torn and violent society where whole swathes of the population are not even considered legal persons. The individual plots of every single person are utterly void of a positive ending.
  • Damsel in Distress: Laura Richis is helpless against Grenouille and must be locked in her room for protection.
  • Determinator: The narrator emphasizes Grenouille's great will to survive through a childhood that would have killed most others. In the book, he’s described as a tick, enduring through the harshness.
  • Destroy the Evidence: After Grenouille leaves for Paris, Antoine Richis orders every shred of record, from evidence of the perfume's existence to the orgy, scrubbed to ensure no one ever knows] what happened. In the process, further erasing Grenouille from history.
  • Devoured by the Horde: At the very end, Grenouille, saddened that his perfect perfume can’t create love, uses it to kill himself. As he approaches a group of beggars, he dumps all of the remaining perfume on himself. The beggars are so enchanted by his smell that they swarm him and rip him to pieces.
  • Dies Wide Open: A few of Grenouille's victims die this way, including the Plum Girl.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: In the film, Grenouille first tries out his scent extraction method on a prostitute and kills her when she tries to back out of the process. After fooling her dog with the scent to confirm the success of his process, he discards the scent as unworthy.
  • Doom Magnet: Nearly everyone who takes in Grenouille dies soon after he leaves them. Exceptions include Madame Gaillard (in the book), whose problem is that she lives much longer than she wanted to, and Madame Arnulfi, whose new husband is executed.
  • Driven to Suicide: Grenouille realizes that he'll be Lonely At The Top, and has no other reason to live.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Grenouille dumps the naked bodies of his young, beautiful victims haphazardly throughout the city. Also present in one of the film posters. After watching the film, it becomes more clear that the woman pictured is dead.
  • The Dung Ages: The slums of 18th century France are a filthy and disgusting place. The book and film go into particular length about the foul odors. In the book, Grenouille's mother is described as "relatively handsome", meaning here that she's still some teeth left in her mouth and some hair on her head, no diseases except syphilis, gout and a slight case of tuberculosis, and expects to live for a long time - five or even ten years. Parisians were banned from expanding outside the city walls, and the filth, pollution and overcrowding were a major contributor to the French Revolution. On the other hand, the countryside and wealthy parts of France are portrayed as quite gorgeous.
  • Dying Alone: Inverted with Madame Gaillard in the book, who runs the orphanage where Grenouille was raised. She collects money so she could die alone in her own home, instead of a public hospital. However, she doesn't die soon enough, in The French Revolution her money becomes worthless, and she dies in the way she was trying to avoid in her whole life: crammed into a hospital bed with several other women, and then buried in a mass grave.
  • Emotion Bomb: The perfect perfume. Grenouille uses the emotional effects of the perfume to get the entire city's population to universally declare him innocent of murder. Even Antoine Richis succumbs once he draws within arm's reach.
  • Enfant Terrible: Grenouille in his youth. The narrator mentions his cry as a baby was not to survive but to have his mom executed, though Grenouille did it unconsciously.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Averted in the movie; thanks to Grenouille's lack of scent, he steps right over a sleeping dog as he's sneaking up to Laura's bedroom, without the dog sounding the alarm.
  • Evil Redhead: Grenouille, in the book at least.
  • Final Girl: Subverted. Laura is teased as the one girl to survive Grenouille's murderous plot, to the point that he hesitates when he finally has her in his grasp... but he still kills her.
  • First Girl Wins: The Plum Girl, the first victim, is the one who makes the most lasting impression on Grenouille and is what starts him on his quest. The only other girl to make much of an impression is Laura, who bears more than a passing resemblance to her.
  • For the Evulz: In the book, Grenouille wonders why he wants to rule humanity and concludes that it's because he's thoroughly evil. In the film, however, it's suggested that he wants to prove his worth despite lacking a scent.
  • Gay Paree: Parts of the story take place in Paris, though lower-class areas are pretty squalid.
  • Glamour: The premise of the story is that this is more than just figurative.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Grenouille's body is covered in scars and old burns from the tannery. His brutal master is particularly gruesome.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: In the film, Grenouille needs thirteen scents - each working in sequence, as the chords in a musical composition - to create his perfect perfume. Each of these scents comes from a beautiful woman. This also doubles as Gotta Kill Them All: he keeps the scent, but discards the person it once belonged to.
  • Gross-Up Close-Up: Grenouille smells a dead rat, giving us a close-up of the maggots inside. Thanks.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Empowered by his super-human sense of smell, Grenouille is a vastly superior perfume maker than Baldini and even his more successful rivals, despite their decades of experience.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: Having a greatly heightened sense of smell? Less meh than it sounds.
  • Hero Antagonist: Antoine Richis, played by Alan Rickman, is an effective community leader and loving father trying to stop Grenouille's rampage.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: While standing amidst the mass orgy he's created with the perfume, Grenouille suddenly thinks back to the Plum Girl and imagines being intimate with her, indicating that feeling love was what he had wanted all along. This ultimately pushes him over the Despair Event Horizon.
  • Implacable Man: Grenouille tracks Laura across the countryside by smell, on foot, past all her father's defenses, right into her bedroom.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: After Grenouille empties his bottle of perfume over his head, a nearby crowd is so overwhelmed by Grenouille's concentrated beauty that they completely devour him out of love.
  • Lack of Empathy: Both Grenouille and Madame Gaillard are devoid of empathy, and the latter is described as almost completely dead emotionally and in terms of her sensory apparatus, hence why she doesn't feel revolted by Grenouille as others are due to his lack of smell.
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: The collective reaction of the people of Grasse the day after the execution derails into an orgy.
  • Living MacGuffin: Laura, bordering on Mundane MacGuffin Person. She is the driving force of much of Grenouille's plot - by dint of nearing sexual maturity and smelling really nice. And that's about it. In the book she does literally nothing except get moved from place to place, and then get killed.
  • Lonely at the Top: Grenouille's completed perfume gives him the power to rule the world, but he realizes that it won't make him happy, so he commits suicide instead.
  • Love Is in the Air: Grenouille's perfume turns what was supposed to be a public execution into a massive orgy in open-air.
  • Mad Artist: The central concept of the film: Grenouille makes the world's most beautiful perfume through murder.
  • Magic Realism: Grenouille's sense of smell, the fact that he has no body odour of his own, the lethal misfortunes of all his former keepers, and the effects of his perfume all breach the confines of either possibility or probability.
  • Meaningful Name: Grenouille means "frog."
  • Misanthrope Supreme: Grenouille hates people and at one point isolates himself in a cave through the entire duration of the Seven Years' War just to get away from everybody.
  • More than Mind Control: The ultimate scent. At one point in the film, during the early stages of Grenouille's master perfume he tests a small drop of it on his hand, causing his vengeful, abusive employer to suddenly treat him with submissive politeness.
  • Mummies at the Dinner Table: After accidentally killing the Plum Girl, Grenouille strips her naked and smells her until her scent fades. One or two of his victims are found in the places they dwelled while alive; a rich girl is draped over her settee, a nun at the floor of the chapel.
  • Narrator: John Hurt provides some excellent narration in the film.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Grenouille's targets are virgins, and Richis plans to protect his daughter by getting her married posthaste.
  • Never Found the Body: The Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse is last seen climbing a mountain naked in a snowstorm, convinced the air will make him young again.
  • No Name Given: The Plum Girl
  • Nobility Marries Money: Antoine Richis, a wealthy merchant, intends to marry off his daughter to the son of an impoverished baron, and then leverage this to marry a noblewoman and raise his future sons into the aristocracy.
  • Non-Idle Rich: The wealthy officials of Grasse, lead by Antoine Richis, work tirelessly but ineffectually to put a stop to the serial killer.
  • The Nose Knows: The entire plot revolves around Grenouille's downright superhuman sense of smell.
  • Obsolete Mentor: Baldini teaches Grenouille a method to make perfume, but the method isn't sufficient for him, forcing him to go elsewhere.
  • Offing the Offspring: Grenouille's mother was a fish lady who used to immediately kill all of her newborn offspring. Grenouille was loud enough to attract the attention of a customer, thus saving his life. His mother was executed for multiple counts of infanticide after the Parisian police investigated the matter.
  • Only Sane Man: Richis is this, for being the only person in the city who knows that the killer is still out there. He's also the only person in the crowd to resist Grenouille's perfume, until he comes too close, and it overpowers even him.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Grenouille is raised in one of these. In the film, conditions are so bad that the other orphans try to kill him as a newborn to save room. In the book, the other kids are afraid of him due to his unnatural lack of smell. They still wish to kill him, but since none of them are actually brave enough to touch him, their attempts to smother him while he sleeps fail.
  • Parental Abandonment: Grenouille's mother is executed for trying to kill him at birth. We never learn anything about his father.
  • People Jars: Grenouille puts a woman in a large glass vat in a failed attempt to extract her scent.
  • Pervert Dad: In the book, Richis certainly notices his daughter's beauty, staring at her for hours on end and even fantasizing about having sex with her. In the film, it seems he is merely overprotective because she's his last living relative.
  • Photographic Memory: So to speak. In the book, Grenouille can perfectly remember every scent he ever smelled.
  • Properly Paranoid: While everyone else in town is celebrating because the murderer was apparently caught, Richis goes to extreme lengths to hide his daughter alone in a hotel many miles away from town in a room without windows. It still isn't enough.
  • The Pig-Pen: Grenouille is almost always covered in grime, especially when he is a penniless tanner's apprentice.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Antoine Richis sets about handling the serial killer crisis in an intelligent and logical manner, unlike everyone else.
  • Rebellious Princess: A noble young lady recently arranged to be married to a man she barely knows, Laura flirts with being rebellious but ultimately obeys her father.
  • Replacement Goldfish: By the end it becomes apparent that Grenouille probably only went after Laura because of her resemblance to the Plum Girl, who he was originally obsessed with.
  • Retirony: Inverted with Baldini, who is about to cut his losses and retire before discovering Grenouille's abilities. As a result, he keeps working for the rest of his much-shortened life.
  • The Scapegoat: After Grenouille escapes from Grasse, his employer is tortured into confessing to the murders.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Grenouille's sense of smell allows him to track people over miles of countryside and through twisty alleyways.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Grenouille was born as an emotionless misanthrope and spends his years wandering the country to find the perfect scent and complete his life's work. Everyone he comes in contact with has a habit of dying in short order, as if his very presence is toxic. He murders several girls to extract their scent, but when he completes his mission, he realizes not even ruling the world will make him happy and he returns to the place he was born to commit suicide. Ultimately all the destruction and misery he caused was pointless even to Grenouille and his inconsequential existence is summarily forgotten. Even his beautiful, popular, non-murderous perfume formulas are lost when Baldini's entire house falls into the Seine.
  • Sinister Suffocation: Grenouille stalks a young woman because he wishes to smell her body. To prevent her from crying out for help, he covers her face and accidentally suffocates her. This incident marks the beginning of his transformation into a serial killer, as his distress upon noticing that a person's aroma fades upon death fuels his desire to kill women and preserve their scents in the form of perfumes.
  • The Sociopath: Grenouille certainly shows signs of it.
  • Serial Killer: As the subtitle of the book so helpfully tells us, this is a story about one.
  • Smells Sexy: Arguably the Trope Codifier. A single drop of Grenouille's perfume throws the crowd gathered to watch his execution into a lusty orgy. Later, using the whole bottle at once causes him to be torn limb from limb and devoured by beggars.
  • Suicide by Cop: After realizing that his perfume will not grant him happiness, Grenouille uses the remainder of it to get some street riff-raff to eat him. The omniscient narrator of the book notes that they're all criminals.
  • Super-Senses: Grenouille's sense of smell is so strong that he can smell things like glass, replicate the exact formulae of perfumes, and sense incoming projectiles.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Grenouille, when you realise that he just wanted to be loved by someone, and the effect of the perfume is only an empty imitation of love.
  • Torn Apart by the Mob: A bizarre (and self-inflicted) example. After completing his murders and creating a perfume so intoxicating it allows him to command any human how he pleases, Jean-Baptiste realizes he'll still never truly be happy. So he approaches a crowd of beggars and pours the perfume all over himself; enchanted by the scent, the beggars surround him and tear him apart... and it's implied they devoured whatever was left.
  • Torture Always Works: Averted. At least two other people are tortured into confessing to Grenouille's crimes. When Grenouille himself is captured and tortured to try and extract a motive out of him, he refuses to elaborate.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Grenouille's victims are found with their hair shorn to stubble. Perhaps not so traumatic for the women themselves, who were already dead when it happened and thus past caring, but certainly adding to their debasement and their families' horror.
  • Trippy Finale Syndrome: Grenouille uses his completed perfume to cause the crowd at his execution to fall into a massive orgy. Later, he dumps the entire bottle over his head, causing a nearby rabble to eat him. Wow.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe. Grenouille not having a scent is implied to be why people hate him and the reason behind his bullying at the orphanage. It's just subconsciously odd.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Grenouille wants to create a paradise on Earth with his perfect perfume, and he's willing to kill without remorse to get it. When he finally makes the perfume, however, he finds the love that it grants him is hollow.
  • Villain Protagonist: Grenouille is a pitiless murderer and likely psychopath, but this is his story.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: Grenouille spends most of the film creating the perfect perfume. Once he uses it, he decides that it doesn't really give him what he wants after all.

Alternative Title(s): Perfume The Story Of A Murderer