This post includes a character analysis of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. Beware of spoilers.
The 2006 drama directed by Tom Tykwer stars Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Today’s analysis is solely based on the film, not the novel.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
In “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a young man born with an extraordinary sense of smell. He grew up as an orphan, Grenouille’s mother abandoned him shortly after his birth.
Before working as a perfumer, Grenouille was a tanner, and that is how he met his mentor, Giuseppe Baldini. While apprenticing under the famous perfumer, Grenouille learned the art of distilling fragrances. However, this particular technique doesn’t work on human scents.
In order to perfect his craft, Grenouille travels to the town of Grasse. There, he starts conducting experiments on humans. Once the young man learned how to extract human scents, he began killing several beautiful women.
One of his victims is Laura, the daughter of a wealthy man named Antoine Richis. Despite his efforts to protect Laura, Grenouille gets to her first. After mixing the essences of all the women he killed, the perfumer finally completes his perfume. The fragrance is incredibly powerful, capable of making anyone bend to Grenouille’s will.
Despite possessing the power to rule the world, Grenouille returns to his birthplace and pours the remaining perfume on himself. The intoxicating smell causes a group of hungry beggars to devour him alive.
Note: For those who are interested, here is another article discussing the meaning behind the ending of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille Character Analysis in Perfume
Perfume presents Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a gifted perfumer with an incredible sense of smell. Unlike other social beings, Grenouille is more interested in discovering new scents than meeting or bonding with other people. Essentially, Grenouille wants to absorb everything that the world has to offer, but he does it through his nose.
In terms of personality, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is smart, amoral and obsessive. Despite growing up poor and lacking a proper education, Grenouille is very intelligent. He is a quick learner, which allowed him to become a refined perfumer in a short period of time. However, Grenouille’s talent is both a gift and a curse. The young man is quite obsessive about his craft, which often leads him to be quite inconsiderate about others’ well-being, making him an amoral individual.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s Obsession With Scents
Throughout the film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” Grenouille’s obsession with scents develops in a compelling and disturbing manner. It all started with an early fascination with odours. Grenouille exhibits a strong interest in scents from an early age. His high sense of perception allowed him to develop an exceptional sense of smell.
Nonetheless, as Grenouille grew older, his obsession intensified. After meeting “Plum Girl”, the young man becomes fixated on creating the ultimate scent, the one that will make him truly loved and admired by others. Ever since he was born, Grenouille has never felt any emotions or a genuine connection to anyone, and he strongly believes his “creation” is the key to changing that.
Eventually, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s obsession turns deadly. The perfumer has moved on from extracting scents from things and moved on to human beings. In order to extract the scent of several beautiful women, he murdered them first.
After creating the “ultimate perfume”, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille arrives at a very sad conclusion: he is incapable of feeling anything for other people, and no one will ever genuinely love someone like him.
What Motivates Jean-Baptiste Grenouille to Commit Murder?
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s victims were just a means for him to create his fragrance. However, his obsession also comes from the one thing Grenouille has been lacking his entire life. Unlike many, Grenouille was never able to experience love: both on the receiving and giving ends.
Grenouille’s mother abandoned him the moment he came out of her womb. When he arrived at the orphanage, the other kids were trying to kill him. In addition, Grenouille’s days at the leather company weren’t that great either, it was a lot of hard work with little to no reward.
Even his mentor, Baldini, never had his best interests at heart, the old man just wanted to use the young man to create more fragrances. Having said that, the lack of “love” in Grenouille’s life definitely affected the way he interacts with others.
For instance, Grenouille has no social etiquette and his moral compass is messed up. When Grenouille was madly chasing the “Plum Girl” and Laura, he wasn’t enamoured with her beauty. There was something about his victims’ scent that attracted him. However, the fascination never goes beyond that. Grenouille was never in love with these women, he just liked the way they smelled.
What Is the Significance of the Perfume to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille?
The perfume symbolizes Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s desire to have his own identity. There is a turning point in the story that occurs when the young man finds out that his body doesn’t have a personal scent. For Grenouille, this was the most devastating realization of his life. Having no scent means having no identity.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille also equated his condition to the indifference that people have shown him throughout his life. That’s why Grenouille was so desperate to create that perfume. He believed that the “magical” fragrance would allow him to experience what he has been lacking most in his life: love and adoration.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is indeed fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Throughout his journey, he goes from neglected orphan to ruthless murderer in a short period of time. His amazing gift also leads to his dark obsession with capturing the essence of beautiful women.
At first, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille appears to be a sympathetic character who suffers from rejection, loneliness and abuse. But later on, it becomes increasingly harder to root for this character because he seems to have no emotions or even a soul. The only thing that seems to give Grenouille some pleasure and meaning in life is his passion for scents.
The protagonist of “The Perfume” and his downfall are a great reminder that we shouldn’t let our passions consume us, but balance them with reason and morality. Sometimes our obsessions might strip us of our humanity, leading to dangerous consequences. In the pursuit of his passion, Grenouille slowly became a monster, killing innocent women along the way only to steal their scent for his perfume.
To sum up, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s life is quite tragic, not only because of his circumstances, but also because of his choices. Despite all his efforts, Grenouille never found the happiness or fulfillment that he was looking for, only emptiness and despair. The young man never experienced or understood the true value of love, only the superficial allure of beauty.