Dial empathy for murderer…

So anyway, I finally got around to seeing Perfume tonight, and I loved it so much I want to have its babies.    

Yes, I know I was the one who ranted about the insane criminality of voice-overs that aren’t by characters within the film, but fuck it, this one works. Maybe it’s because the omniscient narrator is a pre-twentieth century literary tradition, so it seems right in a film like this for exactly the reason it feels wrong in a film like Little Children.  

The main thing that impressed me, though, was something else that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and that is making the audience empathise with characters even if they are inherently bad.

Grenouille, our ‘hero’ (to use very reductive term), kills innocent women to make perfume out of them, and yet you find yourself wanting him to succeed in his grand project, much like you almost want the killer to succeed in strangling Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder.

Hitchcock, of course, is the master at getting you to empathise with evil, even if only briefly. He does it in Dial M for Murder, he does it in Psycho (you want that car to sink in the swamp so Norman will get away with it) and he does it in Frenzy (you want the murderer to get that tie-pin out of his victim’s hand).

So just how do you get an audience to root for your anti-hero? Well, in Perfume, there are a few crucial techniques employed.

When we first meet Grenouille, he is a new born infant struggling for life in the mud, left for dead by his mother. Not a single person in the cinema can fail to hope he draws his first breath and survives. From that moment, we’re pretty much with him.

If that’s not enough, we witness him subjected to the cruellest of upbringings: nearly murdered by fellow orphans, shunned, treated as a slave. Who could fail to want him to do well?

We also know a secret about him: his extraordinary olfactory talent. Knowing a character’s secret makes us empathise with him.

Then we see that talent go unrecognised. We know he could be the greatest perfumier in Europe, but he is condemned to be a slave.

Fake mind-readers and clairvoyants use Barnum Statements as a cold reading technique. These are statements that seem specific to you but are actually true of almost anyone. One of the key Barnum statements is ‘you are very talented but your talents aren’t recognised where you work.’ Anyone who hears that thinks ‘That’s so true!’ because everyonethinks that about themselves.

So when we see a character’s talents go unrecognised it chimes with our own deep inner need for recognition.

People who don’t understand drama think that you need to make your characters ‘sympathetic’ to get an audience to like your film. But you can get an audience to empathise with anyone, even the most evil person. All you have to do is show that character engaged in struggles that all of us have engaged in or can imagine ourselves engaged in. It’s as simple as that.

In Perfume, the writers (Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Twyker) employ empathy-inducing tactics such as basic survival, being bullied and going unrecognised.

We’ll go anywhere with a character after this array of techniques have been played on us. Anywhere at all.

This is why Perfume is  a masterclass in audience identification and I can’t recommend it enough.

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