Perfume review: Netflix's new German series seduces, disgusts, surprises, grabs us by the collar in turns

Perfume is a meticulously crafted show but its execution could have been more accomplished.

Anupam Kant Verma January 04, 2019 16:45:45 IST
Perfume review: Netflix's new German series seduces, disgusts, surprises, grabs us by the collar in turns

Having watched the first season of Perfume in a single sitting, I have come to suspect more and more that the the show’s main ambition is to entice us towards and drown us beneath a fragrant pile of aromas, images and sounds, lulling us into a state of desperate bliss. This catches us by surprise, for it shines a light on the nooks and crannies of our being that we forgot existed in the first place, or ignored conveniently. If that’s indeed true, it is a dangerous, wild animal of a show, the kind we prefer to witness from the back of a guarded car on a meticulously arranged safari.

Perfume review Netflixs new German series seduces disgusts surprises grabs us by the collar in turns

Friederike Becht (L) in a still from Perfume. Netflix

Even if it isn’t, it manages to keep up that appearance, largely succeeding in luring us into its mysteries. We are seduced into sleepwalking towards an endless field of poppies, where this animal huffs, puffs and snorts its way forward. It threshes through the flowers, which let loose a torrent of aromas that render us oblivious to all the plot holes and flaws of this show. Before we know it, we find ourselves dazed and delirious smack in the middle of the finale, driven by forces beyond ourselves, just like Nadja Simon, the show’s protagonist.

Nadja is the chief investigating officer for what appears to be a case of serial murders. A woman is killed, her armpit and vaginal area mutilated and her scent glands removed with surgical precision. Nadja suspects the killer to be among her group of friends, a tightly knit circle that goes back to their boarding school days. The more she learns about them, the less she likes them all. For behind their rich facade lie rotten souls that become more depraved with the passing episode. As more people begin to die, pressure begins to build around Nadja to crack the case quickly, and her personal life begins to suffer under its weight.

The show is adapted from Patrick Suskind’s international bestseller of the same name. It has previously led to a period film, which was an international success. Perfume is a modern adaptation of the book, with a woman for its protagonist and the secrets and lies of this group of friends’ pasts forming the meat of the narrative. The viewer would find it exceedingly difficult to empathise with most of the characters. They are what we’d like to dismiss as bad people. But once the show begins to peel off the layers of its characters with a perfumer’s precision, we secretly begin to find things in common with them, despite ourselves. As Moritz de Vries — the perfumer among the friends — explains in his voiceovers, a perfume reveals itself in keeping with the art of the one who made it, slowly revealing its heart to the wearer and those around them.

Unlike the other senses, it is almost impossible to shut ourselves from scents for long. There is a near subliminal mystery to the way a perfume works its magic on us. There is a heist-like quality to its mysterious ways, only one committed without anyone possibly having the chance to suspect anything. The show revolves around this central facet and by turns seduces, disgusts, surprises, grabs us by the collar and abandons us like waste. That is its great strength. Endless seduction. Maybe that’s why it chooses to begin with the murder of a woman who had the uncanny ability to seduce men without expending much effort, inspiring jealousy and desire wherever she went. No one is spared seduction. To the point that everyone chooses to follow their noses at the expense of the other senses. Just like us, the ones watching the show unfold.

There are passages where Perfume seems to abandon the central mystery altogether. It starts to revel in the characters’ lives to the degree that a discerning viewer can’t help but feel that even the creators themselves fell under the spell of their creation’s allure. To its credit, the show does justify its strange narrative choices later on, meticulously tying up the loose ends in the finale. But that cannot distract from the meandering nature of the narrative. In short, the execution could have been more accomplished. One may argue that it a deliberate choice, in keeping with the spellbinding nature of the perfumes themselves, which make people behave irrationally and not quite themselves. However, the texture isn’t defiant enough to merit those choices in their entirety. The final resolutions, notwithstanding their surprising nature, arrive with clockwork regularity, setting up the next season. While the content of the finale isn’t shorn of the delirious madness infecting everyone in the show, the overall structure it fits into never appears as defiant as a truly radical work of art. In sum, Moritz would be left with a less than satisfactory taste in his mouth.

But none of that can diminish the sheer sensory power of Perfume. Nor the way it slowly creeps into our being through the nostrils and the eyes, turning around the mirrors hidden there to reveal the faces of these characters staring back at us, smirks plastered on their visage. This German television production may not show us who we really are. But it momentarily shines a feeble light on who we can be. And more dangerously, may want to be.

Rating: ★★★ ½

Perfume is currently streaming on Netflix.

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