Ah Paris, the city of love. A city we have seen represented in countless films over the years, and in a multitude of ways.
In this week’s episode we sat down and chatted with the wonderful Jim Campbell to discuss a film of his choosing, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. For the purposes of this piece, and as in the episode, I will be referring to it simply as Perfume because life really is too short.
Having listened back to the episode I realised there was two points I wanted to make that eluded my thoughts as we waffled on about this mercurial quagmire of a film.
So, I thought, why not do a bit of writing about it… and now you’re reading it… so… good…
My first thought was that this is not a representation of Paris I had ever seen in a film before. This ain’t your grandpappy’s Paris that’s for sure. As we see the young Grenouille living in abject poverty the film bombards us with the overwhelming sense of hopelessness. People almost literally scraping by (ironic when you think what then happens later). I don’t know about you but normally I’d think of Paris as the city of love. A city of class, with bistros on every corner, crammed with people enjoying coffee, cheese, bread and wine. But not here. The film certainly does not shy away from showing us just how destitute and desperate many of the people were at this time.
Now I’m no fool, I know this is very much a film set hundreds of years ago and I also know Paris like any Metropolis has its parts where you wouldn’t want to walk home alone (just like that bit in Taken where Liam Neeson says that, or probably more accurately La Haine.)
But my point is, that I’ve never seen this done before and I feel it should not go unmentioned that this is a really brave move.
And this brings me on to my second thought. It very much was touched on in the episode, but I wanted to re-iterate the point. I’ve never quite seen a film like this that was such a deliberate assault on all 5 senses. Of course, smell is very much the main focus. But it would appear to me that careful consideration has been taken to tackle the other 4 senses as well to create a sensory bubble bath that the film lowers you into whilst you’re busy trying to smell the salts.
When the setting is dirty the film creates a world where you yourself feel dirty. In this eternally grey and dreary part of Paris every person on screen is covered in dirt and sweat. Great care is taken to focus on what it is they are touching. Whether that be re-arranging their market produce or cutting up rancid looking meat and fish. All the while your ears are being fed this constant sound scape of wet sounding squelches, scrapes and sniffs.
With these immersive pictures and sounds we are fooled into thinking we can almost smell what we see. So much so, at times I could taste it.
There is only one other film I can think of in which I can recall feeing so consistently consumed by the sights and sounds I was being presented, but for an all too different effect.
That film is Ratatouille, which oddly goes back to what I was saying about representations of Paris. When it comes to romanticising Paris, there aren’t many that do it more than this Pixar love letter. The fact is I don’t mind. As soon as that little blue rat starts adding to that soup, I just want a big glass of red and a plate of cheese. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
Of course, other films have achieved it for me to some degree (Chef, The Godfather, Willy Wonka and The Princess and the Frog) but it occurred to me that, unlike Perfume, they’re all about food or the scene in question is with food. Perfume manages the same effect without relying on the sensory memory associated with food. A testament I feel to the effort that has gone into this film. Whilst this is done purposely to create an unpleasant feeling that it more than achieves, I wanted to say I enjoyed it ever more for that.
Touch and Bon Appetit.
Originally published on Tumblr on 28th January 2021