The “Sophisticated” Barbarian

In my seminar this week, Professor Berghof had introduced to a German movie titled Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Although showing us only a short clip of the beginning of the film, I was intrigued by the story and decided to watch the rest of if on my own time.

The film tells the story of a man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan with an extraordinary skill in his olfactory senses. Upon his first arrival to Paris, he becomes enchanted with the new scents. A desire to recreate and keep the scents of various women consumes him, and he murders these women in order to form an absolutely addictive perfume. However, he is sentenced to an execution for these murders, but manages to escape by applying the perfume onto himself. Realizing that he will never be loved as a normal person due to himself not having a distinct body odor, he pours the rest of the perfume onto himself, causing the people around him to devour and kill him due to its enchanting effect.



Although incredibly disturbing, the film was rather intriguing. When analyzing the film further, it can be seen how it relates to what Professor Steintrager was discussing in lecture, which was essentially Rousseau’s beliefs and his paradox of the “sophisticated barbarian” and how he believed that civilization inherently corrupts humans. It also relates to the frontispiece of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, as it depicts a Hottentot, after coming into contact with civilized society, chooses to leave and return to his equals as he sees how corrupt it is.

As seen in the film, the main character can be seen as relatively more primitive than those in the city: he was born in poor area, grew up in an orphanage, and spent his teenage years and young adulthood working as a tanner’s apprentice, slaving away. In the very beginning of the film, depicting him as a child, Jean-Baptiste’s interests in scents were fairly innocent, restricted to the nature around him. It is not until he is older and introduced into the bustling city life that he becomes a murderer, showing how his introduction into a more civilized society was what brought on these tendencies.

Jean-Baptiste differs from the barbarian portrayed in the frontispiece of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality however, as when introduced into society, he allows it to corrupt him.  Unlike the Hottentot, he doesn’t see the corruption of the civilized and becomes enchanted with its decadence. He himself causes his own ruination as he is tempted from civilization and does not realize their immorality until it is too late. Because he becomes so contempt with society for not loving him for something so trivial as not having his own body odor, he chooses to die at their hands.

Although there are parallels between Grenouille and Rousseau’s faith of the sophisticated barbarian, Grenouille ultimately does not live up to these standards. However, it is also worth noting the he was never a “true” barbarian anyway, just relatively more primitive than the others in the film.


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