“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
I can’t remember whether I read the novel “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind or saw Tom Tykwer’s adaptation first, it never really matters because in my mind, books, films, theatre plays, music, art and dance are entwined and inter-influential co-creators, long story short, if there’s a book and a movie, I read them together.
The original German version of this unique novel had always been a part of my mother’s extensive literary collection. I was always fascinated by the cover, a nude sleeping woman, one arm beneath her face, the other hanging across the soft velvety pillow, surrounded by black and green tones, a close-up of Antoine Watteau’s painting “Jupiter and Antiope”. Then the title, this combination, “perfume and murderer” struck a chord within me, what was the story between the two, what could happen?
In my first year of specialised modern languages and literature studies, I could pick one novel for a project to be presented before the class. I picked Süskind’s masterpiece. From the very first enthralling page, I devoured it, there was nothing like it (my obsession with 18th century France and fin de siècle culture was delighted) and I loved creating the supporting artwork in accordance with the text to illustrate the project. I remember how I sat down with my uncle to discuss it over cookies and coffee (note to self: he is a savoury kind of guy).
I can also vividly remember a heated discussion with my mother after we had watched the film together one afternoon. I could not put my finger on why I loved the story so much and probably did not express it really well, because she was furious when I said that I found the film to be sensual, to which she responded that he is a murderer who kills women and how on earth could that ever be sensual. We were clearly not on the same page and yet.
The novel stayed with me. A bit later there was a literary competition that consisted of writing a letter to the author of one of your favourite books. I won the second or third prize. I knew that Süskind was a recluse, all I needed to know is that he might have read my letter to him.
As I was assembling the works for my postgraduate thesis, I could not leave out “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and read the English translation. I dissected the film alongside the novel, focusing on the portrayal of women’s bodies, the tropes of the aestheticisation of death, disembodiment, extraction, collection, recreation. A Faustian Grenouille. A Frankensteinian Grenouille. Female mimetic psychopomps. Concentrated, turned into an infamous and sacrilegious “objet d’art”. In the end, zooming out of the enchanting (!) perfume-centric aesthetic, Grenouille turns life into death, women into perfumes. I could go on and on, but I have to stop myself here.
“Dame a l’incroyable” by Tadeusz Pruszkowski (1888-1942)