And that is precisely what the metropolitan denizen teaches himself to do: he lives, not in the real world, but in a shadow world projected around him at every moment by means of paper and celluloid and adroitly manipulated lights: a world in which he is insulated by glass, cellophane, pliofilm from the mortifications of living. In short, a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims.
Lewis Mumford 
Continuing on with the ongoing Cinema as Exorcism series (more here, here, here, and here), with a look at the dynamics of modernity and magic in a (very slightly) older film, Tom Tykwer’s 2006 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The film does not so much as exorcise as bring to the surface the dark, magical underbelly of the Enlightenment, the inadmissable but undeniable presence of enchantments in the form of forms of logic that exist underneath, behind, and all around conventional calculations of value, exchange and utility. These enchantments, these dark magics, are represented as a profound source of threat. Such enchantments must be understood as a potent and potential source of danger, something the sociologist Max Weber, the father of the theory of rationalisation, or as he also called it, ‘the disenchantment of the world’, recognised in his own lifetime in the volatile atmosphere of German society at the end of the First World War.
International poster for Tom Tykwer's Perfume
Tykwer’s Perfume is based on the German-language novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind. Süskind’s novel, his first, has been highly influential and wildly popular since its publication in 1985 and is widely considered as part of the always de facto canon of magical realism. The film seems at first to be an absolute departure for Tykwer, who is perhaps best known for his two related fairly tales about the transcendent, even supernatural power of love, Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998) and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior, 2000). The brilliance of these two collaborations with the actress Franka Potenta aside, Tykwer’s best film is likely Heaven (2002), a near mystical, quasi-Christian take on the redemptive power of love, written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz for a planned trilogy of Kieslowski-directed films, offered to Tykwer after Kieslowski’s death in 1996. Against the studied Romanticism of his other works, Perfume is violent, confrontational, even disturbing. It is a rich and finely textured allegory that seeks to examine from within the hidden, dark enchantments of modernity. The narrative undermines any easy account of modern history as the triumphant march out of darkness and into the light of perennial truth. The film is not strictly about modernity as such, it focuses its metaphoric gaze on Enlightenment rationalism, a crucial element in the development of the forms of modern self-understanding embodied in evolutionary narratives. Perfume represents nothing less than a fictional account of that which is unthought, forgotten or simply ignored by modern narratives of progress and by unilinear theories of rationalisation.
The narrative itself is deceptively simple: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan in eighteenth-century France, gifted, like Palahniuk’s Rant Casey, with a supernaturally keen sense of smell, discovers upon reaching maturity that he has no scent of his own, which renders him unlovable and even sub-human. After years of toil as a near slave in a leather tannery, he trains as a perfumer and learns the technological mastery of the world of scent. Yearning to be loved as others are loved, he comes rationally, even scientifically, to a way to enchant the world into loving him. He creates, from the scents of virgin girls he has murdered, a perfume so sublimely beautiful that it holds the power to enchant the whole world into loving him. Upon succeeding, he discovers that his triumph is hollow and commits a strangely beatific act of suicide. Metaphorically, Grenouille, the titular murderer, is an abominable outgrowth of the rationalising tendencies of modern thought, a monster whose dark magic reaches its full potential only when it is augmented by his technical training and the growing body of scientific knowledge that characterised the age in which he lived. In Enlightenment France, Grenouille is seen as an abomination; indeed, the people who encounter Grenouille and his crimes simply cannot grasp his motives or come to grips with his very existence. However, the film presents Grenouille not so much as an anomaly but as a fully explicable and natural outgrowth of rationalisation.
The film features an extensive voice-over from an anonymous and wryly amused narrator (the great John Hurt), who sets the scene of Grenouille’s birth at the heart of Europe:
In eighteenth-century France, there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and notorious personages of his time. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and, if his name has been forgotten today, it is for the sole reason that his entire ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history: to the fleeting realm of scent … In the period of which we speak there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city’s fish market. It was here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. 
From his earliest days, his knowledge of this hidden world sets him apart from the other children in the foetid, overcrowded orphanage where he is raised by the coldly rational Madame Gaillard, who treats Grenouille, and all the other children, as nothing more than sources of income. Grenouille, with his supernatural sense of smell, has access to levels of the world that other people do not. The film casts Grenouille’s extraordinary ability in terms of language:
By the age of five, Jean-Baptiste still could not talk, but he had been born with a talent that made him unique among mankind. It was not that the other children hated him. They felt unnerved by him. Increasingly, he became aware that his phenomenal sense of smell was a gift that had been given to him and him alone. When Jean-Baptiste did finally learn to speak, he soon found that everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulating within himself.
First edition cover of Suskind's Perfume
Grenouille lives, then, outside of the world of conventional language, though he does so because of his gifts, not because of his own will. He survives the orphanage and years as an abused tannery apprentice and grows into a gaunt, silent and scarred young man. Confronted for the first time with the wider world of Paris (outside of the orphanage and the tannery) and the staggering wealth of scents the city has to offer, Grenouille begins his own version of the task of world mastery that is taking place at the same time in salons, laboratories and lecture halls in other, more privileged parts of the city. Tykwer only rarely shows this world. Grenouille serves as the primary guide within the structure of the film itself, forcing the viewer to contemplate the world largely from his perspective. Part of this identification comes through Tykwer’s attempts to emulate the world of scent in a visual medium. He does this with jump cuts and vivid close-up shots of the things that Grenouille is able to smell, images which both focus attention on their particularity and isolate them from their context. As Grenouille enters Paris, the camera dissects the city into discrete, disconnected images, breaking the world down to its constituent elements – powdered wigs, cracking oysters, fabric, bread, mud, sewage, high-born women in carriages, horses. Confronting the confusion and majesty of Paris with a growing hunger, Grenouille seeks understanding and order by breaking things apart, by removing them from the totality of smells and reifying each of these elements in the desire of possession and mastery.
This is true of people as well as inanimate objects and animals. On this first visit to the city, when the film implicitly connects Grenouille to the emerging project of modern science and its hunger for new knowledge, Grenouille also commits his first murder. Visually, the film depicts Grenouille’s fragmentation of the world, and by implication that of emerging modern science, as an act of violence and dismemberment. The camera and the editing break down Grenouille’s victims long before he does, reducing them to fleeting glimpses of a naked shoulder, a vein pulsing on a slender throat, red hair flowing in the wind. Grenouille catches the intoxicating smell of a redheaded young woman carrying plums and follows her into a dark courtyard where he, perhaps unintentionally, kills her. Intentional or not, Grenouille doesn’t appear to care that she is dead, only that her unique smell is dissipating rapidly as her body cools. He drinks up her scent as it fades, stripping her naked and exploring her body with his nose. He cups his hands to hold onto her scent, but he cannot posses it and it fades, igniting within him to fierce desire to permanently possess scent.
It is telling to note one of the narrative’s harshest criticisms of modernity comes across in the fact that Grenouille must enter mainstream society to fully exploit his perverse need for world mastery, not shy away from it; Grenouille must embrace the emerging bourgeois world to fully realise his aims. Shortly after his first murder, Grenouille insinuates himself into the laboratory of faded perfumer Giuseppe Baldini by sheer persistence and demands that Baldini teach him: ‘I have to learn how to keep smell!’ Because of his gifted nose, Grenouille’s facility with perfume is nothing short of magical. Testing a perfume that Grenouille improvises for him, Baldini is transported to an enchanted garden, where a buxom young woman whispers, ‘I love you’ into his enraptured ear. In the novel, Süskind explicitly makes this connection: ‘It was not a scent that made things smell better, not some sachet, not some toiletry. It was something completely new, capable of creating a new world, a magical, rich world’. 
Grenouille, who is often treated as little more than human capital, comes to work as an apprentice for Baldini. Working late in the basement laboratory, Baldini imparts a piece of perfumer’s lore to his new apprentice:
Baldini: Now, pay careful attention to what I tell you. Just like a musical chord, a perfume chord contains four essences, notes carefully selected for their harmonic affinity. Each perfume contains three chords: the head, the heart and the base, necessitating twelve notes in all … Mind you, the ancient Egyptians believed that one can only create a truly original perfume by adding an extra note, one final essence that will bring out and dominate the others. Legend has it that an amphora was once found in a pharaoh’s tomb and when it was opened a perfume was released after all those thousands of years, a perfume of such subtle beauty and yet such power that for one single moment every person on Earth believed they were in paradise. Twelve essences could be identified, but the thirteenth, the vital one, could never be determined.
Grenouille: Why not?
Baldini: Why not? What do you mean, why not? Because it’s a legend, numbskull.
Grenouille: What’s a legend?
Baldini: Never mind.
It says a great deal about the film’s take on modernity and positivistic science that Grenouille confuses this legend with historical fact and later turns to this story for a model when he begins his murderous final act of creation. It likewise says a good deal that it is this mistake that allows him to be so successful when creating his masterpiece, a perfume containing the scents of thirteen virgins. Grenouille is either not aware of or simply ignores the implicit distinction in Baldini’s story between the technical accuracy of the perfumer’s art and the Egyptian story, which is clearly not to be taken as the same level of truth. Grenouille has no need for modern epistemological distinction. Nonetheless, with this syncretism of scientific and mythological ways of knowing, Grenouille is able to replicate the story of the legend, even though it was probably never true in the first place. If we are to pause here briefly to consider Grenouille’s metaphoric role in European modernity, it is worth suggesting that he is not unlike the alchemist in his application of rational methods for supernatural aims. Alchemy perhaps played a greater role in the history of modern science than the subtraction stories are willing to admit, as Louis Dupré notes:
Too often the cosmology of the early modern age continues to be viewed as a prehistory of the scientific revolution, as if there had been nothing between the Aristotelian picture and the mechanistic one. Such a view overlooks a prolonged attempt to understand the universe through chemistry rather than through the laws of mechanics. Until the end of the seventeenth century alchemy developed side by side with mechanical physics as an alternative science. 
To continue the metaphor, in much the same way that Grenouille is a forgotten product of rationalisation, alchemy is part of the unthought and often ignored inheritances in positivist science. For Baldini, Grenouille’s abilities are uncanny, even worrisome, something he is willing to overlook with the floods of money coming into his shop as customers arrive in droves to buy Grenouille’s creations. For Baldini, his new apprentice’s strangeness is defused somewhat when Grenouille learns the techniques and the operational language of perfuming, bringing his knowledge and his skill under the comforting umbrella of known registers of utilitarian language. Süskind notes this connection explicitly in the novel: ‘The more Grenouille mastered the tricks and tools of the trade, the better he was able to express himself in conventional language of perfumery – and the less his master feared and suspected him’.  If Baldini feels more at ease the more that Grenouille learns, he is being greatly deceived. Grenouille, under the respectable language of the perfumer, is growing ever more powerful, ever closer to the realisation of his dream to capture scent. In an intriguing parallel with the novels of Chuck Palahniuk operational language becomes a shield for Grenouille’s uncanny abilities and his unsettling aims.
Trading the formulas for one hundred new perfumes for his freedom, Grenouille departs for a journeyman’s post in the Provençal town of Grasse, which Baldini calls ‘the Rome of scents, the promised land of perfume’. On the way, he is distracted for no less than seven years, living a base, animalistic existence hidden away in a cave in the mountains, revelling in the cold, clean, scentless air but equally horrified to discover that he has no scent of his own, that he is, as others have long suspected, something less than fully human. The narrator tells of the new desire this opens up within Grenouille’s heart:
For the first time in his life, Grenouille realized that he had no smell of his own. He realized that all his life, he’d been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist. By the first light of next morning, Grenouille had a new plan; he must continue his journey to Grasse. There he would teach the world not only that he existed, that he was someone, but that he was exceptional.
Arriving finally in Grasse, Grenouille takes a post as a journeyman perfumer and expands his repertoire beyond what Baldini was able to teach him. He also continues his experiments in his free time, first trying to capture the scent of a reluctant living prostitute then resorting to simply killing women so he will have bodies to experiment with. Grenouille’s experimentation is relentless, passionless and rigorously scientific. After several failed attempts, he finally strikes upon a complex method involving cold enfleurage, digestion, lavage, and distillation that renders the scent of the woman into a single tiny flask. Having robbed these women forcibly of their essence, Grenouille leaves a series of corpses, stripped naked and shorn, for the people and authorities of Grasse to find. In Grenouille’s reign of terror, undertaken in the interests of world mastery and in the selfish needs of Grenouille to perfect himself, the narrative finds its metaphorical centre.
Grenouille’s application of the scientific method in the interests of possessing ‘all the smells in the world’ is what allows his magic, and his perversion, to fully flower. Without the equipment and techniques of the perfumer, Grenouille would be condemned to the fleeting sensations of the scent of the living, accessible to him only via his gifts. Wendy Faris underlines Grenouille’s conjunction of magic and science, which, as we have seen, also manifests itself in the discourses of reenchantment: ‘Grenouille’s perfuming abilities resemble those of an experimental chemist of genius, so that in addition to the magical powers of its narrative mode, the novel also takes on a quasi-scientific aura, intimately connected to the concrete worlds of natural and constructed chemical compounds’.  Grenouille’s perfuming skills bring the reification of the individual inherent in disenchantment and the rise of modern capitalism sharply into focus; the women Grenouille harvests are human capital, literally liquid assets in his quest to manufacture an identity for himself and in his relentless pursuit of the sublime beauty of his thirteen-note masterpiece. In an extended sequence, Tykwer underlines this connection visually. Tykwer intercuts sensuous images of Grenouille’s flasks, bottles, and experimentation with blackly comical images of the discovery of the bodies of the murdered women, drawing an explicit visual parallel between the act of manufacture and the act of destruction.
In Grasse, Grenouille meets his only formidable opponent, the wealthy merchant Antoine Richis, whose sublimely beautiful daughter, Laura, Grenouille needs as the thirteenth and crowning note of his perfume. Richis is a deeply rational and practical man, like Grenouille a child of the Enlightenment. The two are opposites and antagonists; however, they also represent the two sides of the dialectic of enchantment and Enlightenment. When the town council meets to try to decide what to do about the murders, Richis calls for a rational approach to the seemingly irrational horror in their midst:
We have to put ourselves inside the mind of this man. Each of his victims had an especial beauty. We know he doesn’t want their virginity so it seems to me it’s their beauty itself that he wants, almost as if he’s trying to gather something. His ambitions are those of a collector … Whatever it is, I fear he won’t stop killing until his collection is complete.
For Richis, who suspects early on that Laura is a necessary part of Grenouille’s collection, Grenouille’s threat is greater than mere murder; the killings are inexplicable, unreasonable even in the deranged logic of murder. Grenouille attacks conventional structures of knowledge and value by not sexually violating his victims and by following an inexplicable but undeniable logic of his very own. His violation of his victims is symbolic at the same time it is literal, an act of extreme violence, especially considering Baldini’s assertion, which Grenouille takes to heart, that ‘the soul of beings is their scent’. Richis is blinded by his understanding of modernity, which only allows him to understand Grenouille by one standard of truth and logic. The town council refuses to listen to Richis’ sobering and rational call, opting instead to fall back on the divine language of the Catholic Church, which Richis, as an Enlightened man, is visibly sceptical of. Tykwer stages here a very brief debate between science and religion:
Judge: This man is a demon, a phantom who cannot be fought by human means. Now, I insist that we call upon our bishop to excommunicate him.
Richis: What good would that do?
Judge: Have you no faith at all in the power our Holy Mother Church?
Richis: This is not a matter of faith. There’s a murderer out there and we must catch him by using our God-given wits.
Judge: I say until we submit to Mother Church, these killings will not cease.
Tykwer plays the following scenes as a perverse comedy and a mockery of both the council and the Church to even slow Grenouille down. The bishop stands up in his cathedral in front of the town and declares Grenouille’s excommunication with all the vigour the corpulent churchman can muster. The scene is intercut with Grenouille, not in the least bothered by his communication, if he is even aware of it, deliberately mixing his perfume from his twelve tiny flasks of oil, awaiting its crowning thirteenth note in the scent of Laura Richis, which he soon has, despite Richis’ best efforts to thwart him using clever ruses that are no match for Grenouille’s supernatural abilities. Grenouille is caught the next morning as he finishes his perfume over an open flame and is taken back to Grasse for interrogation and execution. As Grenouille is tortured, Richis strives in vain to understand his reasoning. Their meeting is a clash of different epistemologies in which there is no exchange or dialogue between sides. The Janus face of Enlightenment rationalism is here brought into sharp focus as is becomes clear that both men are equally rational, equally methodical. The divide between the two remains nonetheless absolute, their positions utterly irreconcilable by any common discourse, what Jean-François Lyotard calls a differend:
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter? Why?
Grenouille: I needed her.
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter?
Grenouille: I just needed her.
Grenouille is sentenced to a horrific death in the public square. Dressed in blue velvet finery, Grenouille is led to his punishment in front of the entire town. He, through his dark magic, retains the position of power. During the scenes on the platform, Tykwer accentuates the strange and monstrous aspect of Grenouille by placing him dead centre in the frame. A rare composition in contemporary cinema, such an image has an intensely alienating effect (see Figure 1). With a light application of his perfume, Grenouille faces the crowds with equanimity and a wry smile. The executioner is the first to fall under the spell of Grenouille’s perfume, shouting, ‘This man is innocent!’ Spreading the scent with a wave of his handkerchief, the crowd takes up this call. The bishop falls to his knees, declaring, enraptured, ‘This is no man, this is an angel’. Even Richis, the last to fall under the spell, lays down his sword and asks for Grenouille’s forgiveness as the crowd degenerates into a massive and undifferentiated orgy. Soon everyone is naked, or near to it. The coupling is indiscriminate, men with women, women with women, old with young, bishops with prostitutes. Grenouille has brought about with his technique and his magic a perverse flowering of communitas. In his final appearances he possesses a power and an authority, however artificially generated, to control the desires and actions of all those around him. The ambivalent relationship of modernity to enchantment is embodied in these simple narrative and visual moments; unable to stop Grenouille’s killing spree nor understand his motives, the secular and ecclesiastic authorities of the day end their relationship with Grenouille by falling under his spell, by embracing against their will everything they claim to be against.
Figure 1: Grenouille on the platform in Grasse.
As Grenouille stands on the scaffolding, all of the forces of early modern French society are unable to do anything but fall under the enchantment of his mastery, born half from his inexplicable sense of smell and half from rational techniques. What Grenouille represents is the forgotten magic that underlies modernity, the hidden agency of ancient, animalistic elements buried within the structure of European modernity, forgotten but always present. Grenouille, however, feels no satisfaction as he stands above the crowd, a master of the world. Grenouille is, if anything, both disgusted and regretful. In one of the few moments in which Tykwer allows Grenouille some remorse, some ordinary humanity (something Süskind never does in the novel), watching the sea of naked townspeople, Grenouille has flashbacks to his first killing, the girl with the basket of plums. As the whole of the city writhes naked at his feet, caught up in his manufactured reenchantment, the film re-enacts the scene of the murder but shows the plum girl reacting to Grenouille very differently as he approaches her openly. She welcomes him, embraces him, kisses him, returns his singular affection. Grenouille imagines the scene as it could have gone if he were fully human. Grenouille weeps at the thought of her dead, at the thought of the lost opportunity for a living exchange with a living woman rather than his one-sided violation.
Instead of facing up to Grenouille and what he represents, the people of Grasse look away and arrest another man, Grenouille’s former employer, who is hanged for Grenouille’s crimes, thus balancing the scales of justice and the demand for an exchange for the murdered girls in terms that they are able to understand. The march of order and history has been restored and Grenouille, forgotten in the emerging triumphalist narratives of modernity, is left out of the history books:
The people of Grasse awoke to a terrible hangover. For many of them, the experience was so ghastly, so completely inexplicable and incompatible with their morals that they literally erased it from their memories. The town council was in session by the afternoon and an order was passed to the police lieutenant to immediately begin fresh investigations into the murders. The following day, Dominique Druer was arrested, since it was in his backyard that the clothes and hair of all the victims had been found. After fourteen hours of torture, Druer confessed to everything. With that, the case was closed.
That Grenouille is forgotten only further underlines his historical power, in that he works in a threatening symbolic register and cannot be captured in language. His regret, and the ever-present narrator, follow him back to Paris:
By then, Grenouille was already halfway back to Paris. He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the Pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new messiah. He could do all this and more if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death; the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it, he thought. To hell with the world, with the perfume, with himself. On the twenty-fifth of June, 1766, around eleven o’clock at night, Grenouille entered the city through the Porte d’Orléans and like a sleepwalker, his olfactory memories drew him back to the place where he was born.
Grenouille, still dressed in his finery, sees a group of ragged, dirty people huddled around a fire. He upends the bottle of perfume on his head, drawing the attention of the gathered crowd as he is suffused with a warm glowing light. Two women approach him and cry, ‘An angel’ and, ‘I love you’. The crowd falls upon him and literally devours him. There is nothing but a pile of clothes left, and these are stolen by a group of poor children. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille fades into the mists of history, the dark side of Enlightenment and modern science forgotten save for the fragments of finery he briefly wore as the master of the world. Reenchantment is necessarily, as we have argued in conceptual terms, a fleeting, ephemeral, if forever renewed phenomenon not unlike Grenouille and the scraps of his enchantment he leaves behind after his death.
These final images are deeply ambiguous, if not deeply perverse. The narrator finishes his tale in a matter of fact manner: ‘Within no time, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared from the face of the Earth. When they had finished, they felt a virginal glow of happiness. For the first time in their lives, they believed they done something purely out of love’. It is possible to read this final scene in a number of ways. That Grenouille is identified on at least two occasions as an angel, as a figure from traditional Christian cosmology, is highly significant if we return our attention to the concept of religious modernity. In this context, it is possible to interpret the deeply ambivalent ending of Perfume in a different way. What Grenouille, as an angel, represents is the destructive, monstrous aspects of the religious productions of modernity, a murderous hybrid of the religious, the magical and the scientific. This fusion of differing epistemologies can take violent forms, exemplified today in various forms of religious fundamentalism. Similarly, as Faris notes:
In magical realist texts irruptions of magic sometimes constitute the surfacing of buried religious traditions, which speak independently of particular themes and styles. In Perfume, for example, the magical quality of Grenouille’s perfuming abilities transmits a trace of pre-Enlightenment belief in magical powers of enchantment, which operates within the satiric narrative that condemns the beginnings of the scientific age and its culmination in Nazi experimental atrocities, and yet it is not entirely defined by it. 
It is more than this, however. Grenouille is not a trace or a survival, he is a production of modernity and the processes of rationalisation. Jean-Baptiste’s Christian name implicates him both as a significant religious figure and also the one who comes before something greater, in this case both the French Revolution and modernity as a whole. In Perfume, it is a magically endowed, coldly rational and utterly vicious killer of virgins who prepares the way for the modern era, which, the story suggests, is forever haunted by the dark enchantments that lie forgotten in its history by those things it produces and then seeks to forget.
 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961), 546.
 Perfume, DVD. All quotations and screen captures are the work of the author.
 Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, trans. by J. E. Woods (New York: Penguin, 1987), 90.
 Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 52.
 Süskind, Perfume, 96.
 Wendy B. Faris, Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative (Nashville, AB: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004), 74.
 Faris, Ordinary, 70.