June 09, 2008

Perfume: Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
Written by: Patrick Suskind (novel), Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jessica Schwarz, Karoline Herfurth, John Hurt, Corinna Harfouch, Simon Chandler
Cinematography: Frank Grieb
Editing: Alexander Berner
Running time: 147 min
Language: English

In the 1700's, well before the French Revolution, a young man is brought before a rabid crowd. His name is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) and he is a convicted murderer. His sentence to death is read off: In two days hence, he would be executed.

Flashing back to when Grenouille was a baby. His mother gives birth to him in a fish market in France. She tries to hide the child under the table so he would die. When Grenouille gives his first cry, it alerts the other people to his presence. The woman tries to run away but she is caught and hanged afterwards. The baby is sent to an orphanage. The children there fear the baby and try to suffocate it. Madame Galliard, who owns the place, beats the children for their attempt to smother Grenouille.

The child grows up in the orphanage, not being able to speak until after 5 years of age. Instead, it is discovered that Grenouille has an extraordinary sense of smell. He is able to tell different things by their scents. When Grenouille turns 12 years old, Madame Gaillard decides that he can no longer stay at her orphanage so she sells him to a tanner. Shortly afterwards, she dies after being robbed of the money she gained from the sale. Grenouille stays with the tanner until he is a young man.

One day, Grenouille is taking deliveries to Paris when he wanders off to smell the different scents of the city. While standing outside of Pelissier's perfume shop, his nose picks up a scent that he feels compelled to go after. He discovers a young girl selling plums. Grenouille startles the young girl and starts to smell her deeply when she offers him a plum. She runs off, and Grenouille chases after her, following her scent. When Grenouille finds the plum girl, she screams out in fear. He covers her face to keep her quiet and ends up suffocating her. Grenouille then strips off her clothes and breathes her scent in deeply until it vanishes.

One day, a perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), decides he wants to replicate Pelissier's famous perfume, Amore and Psyche. He experiments all day, trying to find out which essential oils make up the perfume. Later, that evening, Grenouille shows up at his door, making deliveries of leathers. He reveals to Baldini that he knows that Baldini is trying to copy Amore and Psyche and that Grenouille knows the ingredients. He then mixes the oils (with methods which horrify Baldini) to produce an exact copy of Amore and Psyche. Then Grenouille states that the perfume is poorly made and he can make it better. He does so, and then asks Baldini for a chance to learn about perfumes.

The next day, Baldini buys Grenouille from the tanner. Later that evening, the tanner celebrates his good fortune by getting drunk. He gets so drunk, that he ends up falling and drowning in the river.

Baldini sells Grenouille's scent as his own, bringing his dying business back to life. Grenouille makes more perfumes for Baldini. Baldini then teaches Grenouille how to mix up a perfume properly and about the the number of notes that makes up a perfume. He tells him that perfume are made up of three layers: top, middle and base. Each layer is made up of 4 notes. However, legend has it that there is a 13th note that ties it all together. He then tells Grenouille of the legend, that in Egypt, a remarkably beautiful perfume was discovered in a tomb. Twelve notes were identified, but the 13th remained a mystery. Baldini then teaches Grenouille about distilling oils from plants. Grenouille then tries to distill oil from metals and a cat, all of his experiments meet with failures. He makes himself sick afterwards, fearing that he will never again have the scent of the plum girl (who was a virgin when she died). Baldini fears the worst and has Grenouille setup in his own bed, hoping to make him better or at least record down any of his perfume formulas.

Grenouille then asks if there are any other ways to capture scents. Baldini then tells him about enfleurage and that he can learn it in the city of Grasse. Grenouille miraculously recovers and then asks Baldini for journeyman's papers to Grasse, in exchange he will give Baldini 100 perfume formulas and Grenouille will never return to Paris. Grenouille then departs for Grasse. Later that same evening, Baldini's unstable house collapses, killing him and his wife.

Grenouille decides to go to the hills instead of Grasse, enjoying his solitude. This is broken after a seven or eight years when Grenouille discovers that he has no scent of his own. He then remembers his mission to capture scent for good and goes to Grasse. Along the way, he picks up the scent of another virgin, this being Laura Richis (Hurd-Wood), the daughter of Antoine Richis (Rickman). Grenouille then becomes employed by Madame Arnulfi, learning the techniques of hot and cold enfleurage. Afterwards, Grenouille begins his experiments.

Grenouille kills a co-worker and tries to extract her scent using a hot enfleurage technique. He finds this to be failure. He then kills a prostitute and is able to extract her scent using a cold enfleurage technique. He finds that he is able to capture her true scent and test it on her dog, who recognizes his mistress's scent. Grenouille sets aside 13 bottles and then starts killing virgins and capturing their scents. The townspeople are in a state of fear and panic when young girls start turning up dead, naked and shorn.

Richis fears for the life of his daughter Laura (since two of the murdered girls were kidnapped from Laura's birthday party). He tries vainly to find the killer. Word travels from Grenoble that a man (not Grenouille) has confessed to the murders. Richis discovers this confession to be invalid since none of the details from the confession match up to the actual murders. The village feels relieved but Richis does not. Later, at night, Richis discovers that someone (Grenouille) broke into Laura's room. He spirits Laura out of town, using a decoy to go to the north while he travels to the south. This does not fool Grenouille however, as he tracks them down, using Laura's scent.

Richis and Laura arrive at an inn, as the only guests. Richis rents out every room and has Laura placed in a room where the windows have a very high drop. Back in Grasse, the prostitute's dog digs up her clothing from the floor of the workshop where Grenouille sleeps. The townspeople find the hair and clothing of all the girls that were killed buried beneath the dirt floor. Later, back at the inn, Richis locks Laura into her room so she can be safe. Grenouille sneaks in during the night, steals the key for Laura's room and enters it. Richis wakes in the morning and finds her dead.

Grenouille finishes his perfume finally with all 13 notes. He is then captured by the authorities and tortured until he confesses. Richis swears that the last thing Grenouille will see before he dies is the disgust in Richis' eyes.

On the day of his execution, Grenouille is brought before the crowd, while wearing the perfume made from the virgins' scent. This essence of love and beauty induces the executioner and the crowd declare him to be innocent. Then the scent overwhelms the crowd until it falls into an orgy. Grenouille flashes back to the plum girl and imagines himself making love to her. Tears start to fall from eyes. Richis then approaches the scaffold to try to kill Grenouille but cannot. He begs for forgiveness from Grenouille instead. Grenouille is released later and Druot (the lover of Madame Arnulfi) is convicted and hanged in his place.

Grenouille decides to go back to Paris, to the fish market where he was born. He knows he has a great power in his hands, but he realises that people will only love him because of the perfume, not because of who he is. "He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror or death. The invincible power to command the love of mankind."

He then approaches a group of low-lives huddled around a fire. He pours the entire bottle of perfume over himself. The crowd declares him to be angel and they devour him. The only thing that is left in the morning is Grenouille's clothes and the bottle of perfume. The last drop of perfume spills out of it into the street.


7 PM

2007, 56 mins, Tamil with English subtitles

Performance and Interviews: Pritham Chakravarthy
Editing, Sound Design and Subtitles: K.P. Jayasankar, Anjali Monteiro
Location Sound: Elangovan R.
Camera and Graphics: K. P. Jayasankar
Script and Direction: Anjali Monteiro,K. P. Jayasankar
Produced by:
Centre for Media and Cultural Studies,
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai 400 088, India

In a radical alternative to notions of the State, community and family, filmmakers Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, professors at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai attempt to change our notion of the family. Their film, 'Our Family,' subverts all ideas of the family whether they are patriarchal, biological or heterosexual, to give it new dimensions and dynamics.The film, set in Tamil Nadu, sways between the lives of the family of three generations of three extraordinary trans-gendered women – Aasha, Seetha and Dhana and their friend, Pritham K. Chakravarthy who used the aesthetic form of dance to craft out the passage of Aravanis. Pritham dramatically re-enacts her poignant and exemplary journey to becoming a trans-gender. Her expressions, gestures and words to recreate the pain and joy to discovering the gendered self in this polarised world of male and female, are visually stimulating.

The use of the 'feminine' mirror can be seen as a metaphor of the many layers of this journey from masculinity to femininity and also reflects the conflicts between the gendered selves at the point of Nirvanam or liberation. When Dhana says that Nirvanam for her means that she can no longer choose to wear male clothes at midnight and walk on the streets at midnight, and that she can't do the same as a female, mirrors the dilemmas that both men and women face when boxed and viewed in fixed, stereotypical roles. What was exhilarating was the natural formation of the unconventional family, a family that defied blood and heterosexual ties and when Aasha Bharathi, president of the Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association in Chennai says that hers is a small family of four, it also brings the debate of family planning and reproduction as forced versus natural.

In a free-flowing multiple narrative, the film breezes through as an engaging and thought-provoking glimpse that feelings of belonging, family and community are transcendental. What is commendable is definitely the careful portrayal of the community, without any hints of exoticism. 'Our Family,' is a well-edited movie, without much technical detailing. It also takes you to the Pal Utru Vizha or the 40th day of celebration of Nirvanam, with meanings of alternative terms typing out on the screen. The end, which sits through a discussion of what this closed-knit community requests from society, is very simple – that we see them as human beings.

About The Directors

Anjali Monteiro is Professor, and P.Jayasankar is Professor and Chair, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Monteiro has a Masters degree in Economics and a Ph.D. in Sociology. Jayasankar has an M.A. in German language and a Ph.D. in Humanities and Social Sciences. Both of them are involved in media production, teaching and research. A presiding thematic of of much of their work has been a problematising of notions of self and the other, of normality and deviance, of the local and the global, through the exploration of diverse narratives and rituals. These range from the stories and paintings of indigenous peoples to the poetry of prison inmates. Jointly they have won twenty one national and international awards for their films. These include the Prix Futura Berlin 1995 Asia Prize for 'Identity - The Construction of Selfhood,' a Special Mention of the Jury at MIFF '96 for 'Kahankar: Ahankar,' the Certificate of Merit at MIFF '98 and Best Innovation, Astra Film Festival 1998, Sibiu, Romania for 'YCP 1997,' the Second Prize for 'Saacha,' at the New Delhi Video Forum 2001 and the Best Documentary Award at the IV Three Continents International Festival of Documentaries - 2005, Venezuela, for 'SheWrite.' Their most recent awards are the Special Jury Award at the Signs 2007 Festival, held in Thiruvananthapuram, Certificate of Merit, Mumbai International Film Festival 2008, Indian Documentary Producers Associuation (IDPA) Gold for Best Sound Design, Gold for Best Script and Silver for Editing for the film 'Our Family.' They have several papers in the area of media and cultural studies and have contributed to scholarly journals such as Cultural Studies. They are both recipients of the Howard Thomas Memorial Fellowship in Media Studies, and have been attached to Goldsmith’s College, London and the University of Western Sydney. Monteiro has been awarded a Fulbright visiting lecturer fellowship for 2006-07 at the University of California, Berkeley. They also serve as visiting faculty to several leading media and design institutions across India, such as Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and University of Hyderabad and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. They are both actively involved in ‘Vikalp‘ and ‘Films for Freedom’, which are collectives of documentary filmmakers campaigning for freedom of expression. They are also associated with various media and voluntary organisations.


8 PM

(Based on the story by O.V.VIJAYAN, 'Kadaltheerath,' won the Best Film Award in the Fiction Category in the First International Video Film Festival held at Thiruvananthapuram)