OBSESSIVE COMPULSIONS, PART I
Obsession can be a funny thing, both “funny ha-ha” and “funny destructive.” Obsession will sneak up on you, too. You don't always recognize it as its grip on you tightens. I know that whenever I say yes to “just one more game” of online Sudoko, each blog entry will take that much longer to write. But there’s something about that obsessive drive that is positively cinematic, probably because the object of the obsession is usually something other than video games and the like. In movies, obsessions are pushed to the extreme and either destroy other people or the person who harbors it, sometimes both.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is about an artist who is obsessed with smells. Born behind the stand of a fishmonger in stinky 18th century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) grows up to realize that he’s got the best, most accurate sense of smell in the world. That’s not enough to break him out of poverty and manual labor until he stumbles across the once-famous perfume maker Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and helps him to mimic and surpass the trendy scents of the day.
Jean-Baptiste is an artist when it comes to mixing and manufacturing scents, but he isn’t interested in money as much as collecting the scents of "real life." More specifically, he’s looking to capture the smell of the beautiful plum seller who he accidentally killed one night. His art is his obsession. Of course, to bottle the scent of a beautiful young woman you need to kill her first, and so he becomes a serial killer.
Let me just say right now that the movie is great, and the reason it’s great is because it’s really, really funny. But it’s a deadpan kind of humor, a British style of humor. It’s as though the narration by John Hurt was written by Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or was pulled from a Monty Python sketch. Pip pip to German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) for pulling off what many have said was an impossible book to adapt. The only other director I can think of who could have pulled it off is Quentin Tarantino, but I only say that because I think he could have matched the humor and style that Tykwer infused into it.
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIONS, PART II
Another cinematic example of obsession can be found in Notes on a Scandal. The beauty of this film is that it is completely subjective. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba Hart and Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett (damn! I had no idea that was her last name! That is too perfect, too spot-on, which is probably why they left it for me to find on the imdb instead of emphasizing it in the movie itself).
The whole story is from Barbara’s point of view, the whole movie is a visual representation of her personal diaries. Whenever we see Sheba, it’s filtered through Barbara’s perception of her, and Barbara is completely obsessed with her. That’s why Sheba is always portrayed as such a bohemian and sexual being. It’s all that Barbara can see in her. And yet she’s in denial about depth of her feelings for Sheba. If there’s one thing that’s more interesting in cinema than obsession, it’s self-denial. That goes for books as much as movies, maybe more. There’s something so engaging about questioning the narrative voice, the authoritative voice of a story.
When my friends and I got out of the movie we had the discussion as to whether Barbara was a lesbian or not. The real question is whether she knew she was a lesbian. My take was that she was from a generation where being a lesbian was not an option, and she has led a repressed life for so long she doesn’t realize how her obsessions manifest themselves, and never realizes why another female teacher may want to take out a restraining order against her. And because the movie expresses her point of view, we’re never supposed to realize why either. Unless we start to doubt the author’s intent. And for me, doubting the author’s intent is always fun.