On Perfume – how a scent affects our identity, or the story of a ….

…murderer apparently. Not what we would normally associate with scent of course. The first thing that comes in to my mind when you say the word ‘smell’ is the response my daughter Evie aged 7 gave when asked how she liked her new home in rural Somerset (where we had moved from Brighton). ‘It’s alright‘ she said ‘but it smells of poo‘.

However, we have been watching  the 2006 film based on Patrick Susskind’s novel ‘Perfume’, published in 1985 (which I remember giving up on after only a few pages as it was, well, uuuugh..), whilst at the same time I have been battling with some writing demons and getting very little done. I have to confess I have been somewhat distracted by the very delicious Ben Whishaw in the lead role, which is a very unsavoury one. He is a man who murders in pursuit of the perfect scent. It apparently took a year to cast the lead, it being very difficult to find someone who could seem both innocent and a murderer. Whishaw is the perfect choice in that respect.

It is a dark and disturbing film, which deals with some difficult ideas. The main protagonist is a young orphan in 18th century Paris. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with a sense of smell that marks him out as a genius and he is apprenticed to a famous perfumier (played by Dustin Hoffman). He comes to realise, however, that he has no body odour of his own, a reason why he is shunned and mistrusted by many he comes into contact with. This sets him on his murderous path to procure the most perfect scent in an attempt to feel fully human. He succeeds in his quest, murdering 25 pubescent girls whom he believes hold the key to the scent. But still he cannot feel possessed of the spirit that allows him to love and be loved – ie. what makes someone truly human. I can’t give away the ending of course, but it isn’t for the faint hearted.

Now this is a movie (and of course a book) that may not interest everyone, it is very hard to watch. However it certainly set me thinking about what purpose our sense of smell has in our relationships with others and with our surroundings. In evolutionary terms we have come to be attracted to things that we believe smell ‘nice’ and repelled by those that we deem ‘nasty’, a survival technique that goes back deep into our ancestry.

There are those smells that always disgust us and evocative scents that always lift our spirits. Apart from those suffering from chronic hayfever, we like to fill our lungs with the smell of newly cut grass. In order to sell your house quickly (because we all make snap decisions like this) you must have real coffee brewing and bread baking in the oven. (A hint here – Yankee candles make this a lot easier). The response to such scents is possibly nostalgia and goes some way to explaining why parents love the milky, sweet smell of their babies. A best selling room scent is called ‘Baby Powder’….

For me, the smell as you take the first peel off a satsuma always makes me nostalgic for Christmas and if you take a peach and rub the skin against your nose it is truly the scent of summer. Rather less obviously, I am slightly turned on by  the smell of methanol, the fuel used in Speedway bikes. Many a rather weedy looking speedway rider has become the object of my affections because of this inexplicable weakness I am sure.

But  can this scented recognition of a person or place have more disturbing consequences? In ‘Perfume’ the products of the murderous experiments are presumably based on pheromones, those chemicals given off by us quite unwittingly, producing potentially amazing effects on those around us. Lots of experiments have apparently been done on the female response to male armpits. Apart from the fact that this is almost as disturbing as the film, I would suggest the Lynx effect wins arms down every time. I am also somewhat sceptical about how pheromones affect an office dominated by women, eventually synchronising their menstrual cycles. I suspect this relates more to the misplaced belief that the quality of a woman’s work is related to her hormones.

I have a good friend, Chris (he of the wurzlemeone blog) who is known as a bit of an alchemist when it comes to aromas. He has a way with essential oils, understanding the chemical messages each send to our brains, affecting our moods. Sitting at my desk at moments of high stress and tension, his blend including frankincense would always lift my mood. I have borrowed some of his books in the hope that a little of his magic can be learnt, but I suspect it is a gift.

So, what smell would you like to trace the perfect essence of, so that you could recreate it at any time to give you a lift? Is there a smell I haven’t mentioned that speaks to us in some universal way? I would rather you did not have to murder in order to achieve the desired result of course. Leave that to Ben Whishaw.

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10 Responses to On Perfume – how a scent affects our identity, or the story of a ….

  1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning…..

    But on serious note, I love the smell of a new book. Particularly things like game instruction booklets, which have sort of magazine style pages. The kind of plasticy yet also woody scent is probably as good as any solvent to me…..

  2. Lucy says:

    Oooh I loved this book. Lots of boyfriends have bought this for me. Now I think about it, that seems quite sinister…

    I watched the film with my mother-in-law which I regretted at the point where it turned into a massive orgy and I was struggling to swallow the cheese and biscuits I was eating while staring fixedly at the screen in a state of deep mortification.

    I love the smell of damp sheds (where I used to play as a child), coffee (which my first boyfriend used to drink), whiskey (boyfriends), cigarettes, aftershave – basically most things that remind me of boys, now I come to think of it. Maybe I just like the smell of a man in the morning….

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes – the orgy was a surprise all of a sudden! I enjoyed the fact that they all woke up with a horrible hangover and a deep sense of shame!

      Damp wood is wonderful – as is wet bracken. I have just posted a blog after a walk we had today. You would have loved it..

  3. English Mum says:

    Wow, this has really hit home with me. Firstly, my father is a perfumer, so my childhood was full of scents (both nice and nasty – if you’ve ever smelt civet, a common raw material in most perfumes, you’ll know how horrible it is!), and Perfume is my favourite book. I’ve so far resisted seeing the film as I can’t imagine it will be as good.

    As a teenager, I loved Rive Gauche and Miss Dior, and I went through a stage of loving Mitsouko, but now I’m more Jo Malone (ooh, you might inspire a blog post here!).

    I’m with Jimmy on the smell of a new book, and I also love the smell of the beach (all salty and seaweedy), lilies, freshly cut grass… plus obviously being a baker, you can’t beat vanilla!

    How cool would it be to mix your favourite perfume? Might give that film a go after all! x

    • keatsbabe says:

      I loved Diorella as a teenager, and Rive Gauche and a perfume called Rapport that my uncle kept buying me long after I had gone off it.. Now I am into Lolita Lempicka – odd but wonderful.
      How fascinating to have a father who works with perfume. You should give the film a chance – it is so beautifully shot you might forgive any weaknesses in comparision to the book. x

  4. wurzelmeone says:

    I must admit that I’ve never seen the film “Perfume” so I can’t comment on it. But I do have some favourite smells, the earliest I can remember is the smell of freshly cut wood from my Dad’s workshop the smell of fresh cut walnut is amazing, the one wood I could not stand was ash it smells so bitter and sour. I also like the smell of freshly washed linen as for essential oils you can’t beat geranium. The blend that you mention was of frankincense, marjoram, rosewood and tea (ti) tree.

  5. I’ve seen the film Suzie – a bit of a strange one, but I enjoyed it overall. The initial birth scene in the market place is probably far nearer to the truth of an 18th century marketplace than most dressed up Hollywood depictions of the time!

    In terms of scent, I have always had a bit of a thing for beeswax (remember the candle on the mantelpiece in the front room at home? I think Mum thought I was addicted to smelling it!)

    I am slightly disconcerted by your methanol comment – evocative and I love it, but thankfully it’s never had THAT effect on me!!

  6. Angela Buckley says:

    I loved the book and the film, especially as it is set in Paris. I think that the sense of smell is often overlooked but it is fascinating how certain smells and scents can evoke such powerful memories and images. Last summer I planted tomatoes for the first time and I was struck by the scent of their hairy, green stems because it immediately transported me to my Grandad’s greenhouse when I was a child. I find that I don’t exploit the sense of smell enough when I am writing and ‘Perfume’ is an extraordinary lesson in how to do that.

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