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When Patrick Süskind's novel The Perfume was first published in Germany
in 1985, I soon read it, and with great pleasure. The author succeeded
in rendering the universe of Grenouille, a human being with an
infallible nose. Grenouille's ability to tell what a man has eaten or
done hours before by the smell he emits is a source of surprise and
amusement for the reader. Sure enough, the novel depends on the faculty
of language to name and describe almost everything, odors included.
When the screen adaptation was advertised, I asked myself how scent was going to be rendered by this medium. The simplest means is to show things, for example dead fish or young ladies, and then show Grenouille sniffing, so the spectator knows what Grenouille is smelling. The film makes indeed ample use of this means. But there is more to it. Our senses are not as independent of each other as it may seem. Physiologists or our own experience tell us that sense of smell and of taste are intimately connected, and poets have discovered long ago that vowels may evoke colors and that the smell of fancy cakes dipped into tea may raise childhood memories. Simply showing a fruit or a flower can thus evoke its smell, and the film makes use of this means also.
Compared to the eye, the nose is a sense organ of short distances. In the film, the camera approaches its objects to such a degree that you can discern e.g. every hair and pore of a human skin. But with Grenouille, the nose bridges also long distances. When he pursues Laura and her father, the camera follows in acceleration the trace of scent the two left from the bifurcation where Grenouille is sniffing around up to their actual position miles ahead.
Odors can provoke visions. The film shows us the flowers and maidens Baldini sees when he smells the perfume Grenouille has mixed. Baldini teaches Grenouille that a good perfume is composed of twelve single essences, grouped into three chords of four which become discernible in the course of time. Now this combination of simultaneity and succession is also a characteristic of music (harmony and melody), and in fact, the harmony-centered film music causes feelings of well-being which might stem also from a well-prepared scent.
In one scene towards the end of the film, Grenouille's perfume acts like a drug. A whole crowd falls into a love-delirium. People strip off their clothes and embrace each other. The screen fills up with masses of human flesh similar to a Rubens canvas.
Apart from these intermedial features, the film offers also a lively illustration of 18th-century France. Highly recommended!
In May 1940, the French army had suffered an astonishingly quick defeat
against the Germans. As a consequence of the armistice signed in June
1940, France was divided into two parts bordered by the so-called line
of demarcation. The northern part, including the entire Atlantic coast,
was occupied by the Germans. The south, called "Zone libre", remained
under French government. It was located at Vichy and headed by Word War
I hero maréchal Pétain.
The film is set in Winter 1941 in a village divided by the demarcation line, which coincides with a river at this section. A bridge crosses the river. Everyone who wants two pass over has to plead his legitimation to the Germans, who have set up a military command on the northern side in the castle of count Damville (played by Maurice Ronet). The count, a captain of the defeated French army, returns home from war, multiply wounded. He can walk with the help of a cane only. But he is also morally damaged. He doesn't believe in the sense of resistance against the Germans any more, quite in contrast to his wife, the countess (Jean Seberg). She is British-born, listens every evening to the BBC broadcast to France and helps a British crew, whose plane has been shot down, to escape to Gibraltar.
The film offers a wide cross-section of possible behavior in times of occupation. There are collaborators, informers, résistance fighters, patriotic veterans from World War I, an upright doctor (Daniel Gélin) and a courageous teacher (Jean Yanne). The Germans are represented by an army major (Reinhard Koldehoff), who tries to keep his minimum standard of military decency, while two Gestapo agents act without any legal or moral inhibitions. The conflict rises to a climax when a British radio operator, working for the résistance, is found out and injured by the Germans. His comrades kidnap him from the hospital, and he hides at the teacher's house, where the countess nurses him. It turns out that the demarcation line not only cuts the French territory in two, but also segregates the French population into true patriots and vile cowards. The crossing of the bridge can also symbolize the change of moral sides.
This may seem a bit too clear-cut. Indeed, with the exception of the major, the Germans are represented in the usual stereotypes. But the the French, especially the count, are shown with their doubts and weaknesses. And there are situations where you have to chose between one of two possibilities. A good deal of suspense is generated by the permanent danger of being found out by the Germans. So this film offers not only moral instruction, but also exciting pleasure, conveyed by good performances of Ronet and Seberg.