Sunshine streamed into the storage room I had been sleeping in and the crisp morning air came in through the open window with it. Hackney smells nice at this hour, or maybe it’s someone’s freshly shampooed hair. The cot I was provided by my couchsurfing hosts creaks a little as I start rolling myself up and awake. I am energized for the day’s special outing. It’s early, but already the housemates hosting me are about preparing themselves for the Saturday morning Broadway Market. It takes Ella an especially long time in the bath, what with her leg in a cast, but today she is determined. It will be her first time out of the house in nearly 6 weeks and her excitement is electrifying.
I’m already excited. While open markets are nothing new in Elbasan, they have a different flavor. The Albanian market place is an everyday occurrence; a product of necessity supporting the local economy. But here in Hackney it is a novelty. Not only are these vendors selling their artisan cheeses and breads, organic meats and vintage clothes (essentially all of which I can find in Albania at much friendlier prices), they are selling cachet.
I’ve not tasted cachet in a while, but if it tastes like Climpson & Sons, then it tastes like really good latte. We sit on the bench in front of the shop window of the crowded café, looking onto the crowded street and the crowded booths with their crowded tables and I can’t help but smile contently as all the bobo chic people walk by with their varying styles and hair and cloth bags filled, or walking alongside bicycles, or pushing along baby carriages, or holding hands.
This is my ease into the culture shock of returning to a (I hate the term) more “developed” country and multiple things are running through my mind – the horrors and joys of materialism and my own hypocrisies, and blah blah blah, when, no…could it be? It is! Among the crowd, blending seamlessly in hipster regalia (all black and worn, with a maroon cardigan, hanging loosely open on a slim frame), passing unrecognized save for the well known shock of wild hair, it’s Ben Whishaw. My eyes are fixed and I keep whispering to myself “It’s Ben Whishaw! It’s Ben Whishaw!” I’m looking around me and to my companions, my face conveying the surprise and excitement, wordlessly yelling, “Don’t you know who that is?! It’s Hamlet! It’s Grenouille! It’s Freddie, Ariel, Sebastian Flyte and John Keats, all rolled into one. How do you not know who this is?! It’s Q for gods’ sake!”
Of course I don’t actually say any of this while worrying why I know all of this (instead of important things like sums) but mostly I’m wondering – should I go say “hi”?
I first saw Ben Whishaw in the film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It also happens that while in London, I’ve been taking an online course on “The Fiction of Relationship,” so obviously all of this is merging into a blog. Bear with me.
The basic premise is that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an extraordinary man born among the squalor of 18th century Paris. His nose, as he declares in one scene, knows all the scents of the world. One day he comes across a girl and becomes enraptured in her scent. She smells of beauty and of pure love. He wants it, he must have it, he must find a way to preserve it forever. The story continues but there is one particular scene that I like. Grenouille’s “belly of the whale.” Grenouille has found a place where there is scarcely any scent at all. A quiet and peaceful place. Allegorically it is like returning to the womb, a safe place cut off from the world. Here he stays for a while forgetting his journey to learn all there is about perfumery, when one day a realization dawns and he is thrust out into the world again, with renewed purpose. He is metaphorically reborn.
In this scene, Grenouille is faced with his fear of not being recognized, of leaving the world without a trace, of living and dying a nobody, when he knows that he is so much more. He stops at nothing to fulfill his plan, and in this next scene we see the results. [SPOILERS] He has created a perfume that gives him a powerful hold on people. His perfume excites love. However, as you’ll see from his reaction, not everything turns out as he planned
He watches on as his perfume excites love, not himself. He is still a nobody. The narrator describe the scene perfectly, “[The perfume] could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved and so he thought, ‘To hell with it.'” All along Grenouille desires to be able to relate to people and form bonds, but he has failed to undergo the final necessary metamorphosis. The classic adage, no man is an island holds true again, and while through the film we see how Grenouille affects other people in his life, he has remained largely untouched, and there’s the sadness in his character (although I don’t think he would ever accept pity – as he says, “to hell with it.”). In this final scene Grenouille returns to the streets of his birth.
and so, disappears from the world.
On the reverse side, while he fails to change in the way that a classic hero character might, one could say that at the least he embraces that earlier fear of his (out of hatred, depression, or exhaustion) and accepts to be wiped from the world.
So why all of this? Well besides an amateurish exercise in film analysis (I do love some film analysis), I can’t help relate to the character. We all want to be the kind of people who can love or be loved, or at the very least recognize and be recognized by the world. Professor Arnold Weinstein from Brown University describes how “we are enmeshed with other. We inform and are informed by others. Our being shapes and is shaped by others.” This is the measure of our journey, of our lives.
I didn’t do it that bright day in Hackney, but “Hi Ben. Sorry to interrupt you on your day out in the market, my name is Luis and I just wanted to say I really value your work as a performer and the characters you breathe life into. Don’t buy the crescents from that place over there – they are a little dry today.”
Here’s the whole film: