18th-Century Quest: Perfume: the Story of a Murderer

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I will completely admit that I put off watching Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (2006) until a few weeks ago. Lots of people were excited when it first came out, and while I was vaguely intrigued by a few of the costumes, I was put off by the idea of watching a movie about a guy who was going to go around sniffing and murdering women. It sounded very Silence of the Lambs, 18th-century-style, which just isn’t my bag. But now that I have this quest to watch “every” 18th-century movie out there, I decided it was time to fire it up.

Overall, yes, there is definitely some gross elements to this, and some unattractive focus on sniffing, and views of the seedy side of the 18th century. On the other hand, it’s not scary or disgusting. The film is well made, and the story is interesting enough. So, I admit, I was probably silly to avoid it … but I don’t know if I’d watch it again!

There's nothing creep about a guy quietly standing behind you and smelling you. Not at all.

There’s nothing creepy about a guy quietly standing behind you and smelling you. Not at all.

The story is set in mid-18th-century Paris and concerns Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is literally born in filth but with a super-human sense of smell. He trucks along in life until he discovers perfume and the lay-deez (okay, their scent more than anything else). He manages to apprentice himself to a perfume maker and, as the title implies, also starts killing people — women, specifically, in an attempt to capture their scent. Later, he goes to Provence in an attempt to further improve his scent-capturing abilities, and things go downhill.

There are a couple of big name performers — Dustin Hoffman plays the perfume-maker who takes Jean-Baptiste on as an apprentice, and Alan Rickman is the Provencal town official whose daughter becomes Jean-Baptiste’s obsession. I particularly enjoyed Hoffman, mostly because they did a great job putting him into 18th-century-appropriate makeup:

Dustin rocking the powder and paint.

Dustin rocking the powder and paint.

The men’s wigs were also really well done — accurate styles, clearly Wigs, and sometimes nicely powdered:

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The slightly ominous marquis — check out the very obvious wigline around the face and the dark hair showing in back. Both are very historically accurate! The peacock wigbag, not so much.

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Dustin, unusually un-powdered.

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Alan in a nice grey wig with two buckles (side rolls).

You can guess that I rolled my eyes at the ingenue’s hair. I can accept that if you’re a dirt poor street urchin, there isn’t anything you can do about your red hair:

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But while it was GORGEOUS, Laura’s red hair was 1) painfully unfashionable and 2) RINGLET-ING ALL OVER THE PLACE. I’m sure they were trying to show that she was natural and innocent and un-artful.

Those are a LOT of (beautiful) very modern ringlets.

Those are a LOT of (beautiful) very modern ringlets.

 

Costumes in Perfume: Story of a Murderer

Overall, the costumes were nicely done! I wished Laura (uh, maybe we could call her Laure and have her sound vaguely French?) would have had a few more outfits, but those that she did were very pretty:

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A very nice Orientalist lounging robe or banyan. GREAT color on her!

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Laura’s showiest costume was this green taffeta pet-en-l’air jacket with great ruched trim.

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This cap is beautiful and very appropriate to 18th-century Provence.

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A mis-step — the fabric is fine, but the stomacher is clearly sewn into the dress. I’ll bet there’s some back-lacing lurking in there! It seems like something out of Valmont, although I can’t find it on any of the main characters.

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The stays are nice, but what I REALLY liked was the cross necklace, which was an ubiquitous style in the south of France in this era (you can find a bunch of similar styles here).

What got me particularly excited were all the Provencal prints on minor characters and extras. The south of France was a leader in terms of wearing cotton prints, which were imported via the port of Marseille. Many of the prints that we today think of as Provencal can be seen as far back as the mid-18th century in paintings and surviving garments from southern France. It was slightly strange that Laura never wore them, but maybe the filmmakers were trying to show that she was a class above everyone else?

Great Provencal cotton prints on the twins on the right.

Again, great Provencal cotton prints on the twins on the right.

Three ladies in great prints -- the one on the far right looks straight out of a period painting.

Three ladies in great prints — the one on the far right looks straight out of a period painting.

Another nice print.

Another nice print.

Compare them with a painting by Antoine Raspal, who painted women in Arles (in southern France) in the late 18th century:

Antoine Raspal, Portrait de jeune fille en ancien costume d’Arles, 1779, Musée Granet

Antoine Raspal, Portrait de jeune fille en ancien costume d’Arles, 1779, Musée Granet

 

Settings in Perfume: Story of a Murderer

I’ll also add that there was some great scenery and locations. First, check out this great matte painting showing of one of Paris’s bridges:

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And anyone who has traveled in Provence knows it’s all about the landscape and the flowers and the colors. They had some beautiful shots that really captured that magic:

06_P-13139.mid perfume-story-of-a-murderer-flowers BKPCDM PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (2006) PFME 001-03

Finally, Two Critter-Related Spoilers

1. POOR KITTY

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As soon as I saw him/her, I know s/he was done for.

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2. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DOG??!!

I spent the entire second half of the movie stressing about this poor puppy, and it’s never resolved, and so I am traumatized.

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. India

    Since the dog is a Pekinese, it’s sort of totally out of period. Yes, even dogs can be in or out of period.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Okay, but WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM? Did someone adopt him and comb him and snuggle him or is he still shivering in an alley somewhere??

      Reply
      • avrilejean

        I got a copy of that book as a valentines’ gift years ago…one of my favorite books. the book is better than the movie but the movie is a great adaptation of the book.
        Not sure if it’s the same scene but he definitely trials his perfume making technique on the dog before he does a human.

        Reply
  2. Julia

    I absolutely love this movie on every level. I love the way everything looks so dirty and real. The screenwriters do an amazing job adapting the book which is also wonderful.

    Reply
  3. Joanne Renaud

    The art direction and costumes were great, but after the cat was murdered by the “hero,” I had to stop watching. I hate that kind of thing. Also, the trope of the “brilliant, tragic but misunderstood serial killer” needs to die a slow death.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yeah, I wasn’t really a fan of the Jean-Baptiste. They clearly weren’t trying to make us love him, but at the same time, it was kind of squicky nonetheless.

      Reply
      • Anneke Oosterink

        Jean-Baptiste is very much not the hero. He’s a protagonist, sure, but the book and the movie both make sure that the readers and viewers understand that he is not to be admired. I have read the book before I saw the movie, so that may have coloured my viewing but that is how I saw it. :)

        Reply
  4. Maggie

    Re: the brown dress with the stomacher sewn on? I saw this one at FIDM – my notes from it say: “the stomacher had a sheer organza overlay, which was embroidered with lilacs. There were hook and eyes on the left side (if you are looking at it) of the bodice, and it was sewn together on the right.”

    So no backlacing, but clearly theatrical fasteners at play! :-)

    Question on terminology – is it a pet-en-lair if it doesn’t have pleats on the back like a francaise? Or is that just a carcao then? I don’t know so I figured I’d ask the expert! This jacket definitely doesn’t have a pleated back. I have one shot of the back of it. http://costumersguide.com/cr_perfume.shtml

    The stuff on the Provencal prints was really interesting, thanks for talking about this!

    Thank you! Enjoyed the post!

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Good question! You’re right, it’s probably a caraco if it doesn’t have the back francaise-type pleats — unless it’s a casaquin, which seems to be the early- and mid-century term for a jacket (caraco seems to be more in use 1770s onwards).

      Reply
  5. Issi

    I did enjoy the movie when it came, but never felt the urge to watch it again. I have read the book several times, though. It’s a big thing in it that girls with red hair has a special and extra desirable scent, so I suppose the film makers felt they had to stress it on Laura. I’ve forgotten her name, but she’s not red-haired naturally. :)

    Reply
  6. David

    It seems like commonly things aren’t as starched (if and when they are at all) when represented in costume drama as they would have been when in actual use – like the “nice lace cap, typical for the era/region”. In the painting, it’s obviously as starched and ironed as it would have been when in current use, and that makes a lot of difference in the way it lays (and anyone with tablecloths knows that starch helps tremendously on laundry day with soil – I imagine that would go double if one was laundering with an earlier method than detergent ;) ). That IS a nice cap – fifteen minutes with an iron after a soak in starch-water and it would be a fantastic cap. I know this is an ancient article, but I recently found your site and I am binge-reading it! Excellent writing and eyes for detail all around here and so many fascinating side-tangents.

    Reply
  7. Phoebe

    I like that your out to watch everything 18th century that you know! I’m actually doing the same thing now. I found many18th century dramas on your website which I didn’t know about earlier!(Thanks SO MUCH!)

    But there’s one called ‘Mozart’s Sister’ which I didn’t find on your website. It’s in French, pretty recent film. I mean it was definitely made after 2000. Why don’t you try it out? I promise it’s pretty interesting and not as unbearable as some of the movies/storylines we sit through just to ogle those gorgeous costumes!

    Anyway I’m really happy I found this website!

    Reply

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