Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) Movie Review

One would think that “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer would have approached the task of adapting Bernd Eichinger’s novel “Perfume” for screen with a sense of trepidation. Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick had all been approached at one time or another to direct this tale of a killer with an ungodly sense of smell, and all had turned it down, each claiming it was “unadaptable”. So in this respect, Tykwer has done a stand-up job in dealing with a theme as translucent and intangible as scent, by creating a vision of 19th century Paris so vivid that the audience can practically smell it.

“Perfume” tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, “Layer Cake”), a man born into destitution with nothing but a heightened sense of smell. Outcast and ostracised for his gift, his olfactory talent soon becomes an obsession. He joins master perfume maker Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and begins to learn the delicate science of scent creation. However, all the rose blossom and essential oils in the world cannot account for Grenouille’s ultimate obsession: the scent of a woman.

Finding no willing participants for his odour-extracting experiments, Grenouille soon takes to murdering the most beautiful, virtuous women he can find in order to create his magnum opus: a perfume so potent it can send entire villages into temporary states of euphoria. However, as the bodies start to pile up, the French authorities, lead by Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), begin to tail Grenouille, and in creating his masterpiece Grenouille ultimately cannot escape the consequences of his actions.

The most striking thing about “Perfume” is its imagery, with Tykwer and the production design crew meticulous in creating a warts-and-all vision of 19th century Paris, right down to the finest detail. The use of extreme close-ups, computer-enhanced steadicam and still-shot montages prevalent in his previous films “Run Lola Run” and “The Princess and the Warrior” is this time used to practical effect, more than compensating for cinema’s inability to convey smell. I cannot emphasise enough how well Tykwer has tackled this challenge that not even the likes of Burton and Kubrick were up to. One scene in particular, in which a young Jean-Baptiste lies on a grassy knoll defining the surrounding smells lingers in the mind like a particularly pungent odour.

“Perfume” contains a stellar performance from Ben Whishaw, who is restrained and creepy as the obsessive and naïve Grenouille. While his efforts aren’t Oscar-worthy, they are still notable and should guarantee a bright future for this unknown actor. Dustin Hoffman puts on a good show as master Baldini, and although his time in the movie is short-lived, it’s certainly memorable. Watching Hoffman and Whishaw together is like watching a young apprentice learn from an old and grizzled master; not unlike what is happening in the film. Alan Rickman also turns in a fine performance as Antoine Richis, his somewhat Shakespearian acting bringing something a bit different to the table.

My only real gripe with “Perfume” is the script, which feels a little weak. For the most part we are made to feel nothing towards the characters, especially Grenouille. It’s hard to decipher whether the filmmakers wanted him to come off as someone to be pitied or feared, or on a grander scale, as a protagonist or antagonist. His murderous actions preclude him from being a sympathetic anti-hero; however, his almost child-like naivety means that try as we may, we cannot hate him. “Perfume” also feels a little vacuous, a direct result of the lead character’s largely 2-dimensional personality. The only real 3-dimensional character is Giuseppe Baldini, and he’s only there for less than a third of the film’s running time.

Also, the ending is a little hard to swallow, but having seen some of Tykwer’s previous films, it’s obvious that straightforward and conclusive endings aren’t exactly his forte. It is rather admirable of Tykwer to put this kind of bizarre, dream-like conclusion onto a big-budget studio-funded movie, and is perhaps a nod to Kubrick. “Perfume” has its flaws, but atones for them with stunning visuals, great performances, a compelling plot and a see-it-to-believe-it ending. Tom Tykwer has truly created a feast for the senses, that, although leaving the heart and mind a little hungry, is nevertheless a very worthwhile watch.

Tom Tykwer (director) / Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer (screenplay), Patrick Suskind (novel Das Parfum)
CAST: Ben Whishaw …. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille
Andr’s Herrera …. Door Guard
Simon Chandler …. Mayor of Grasse
David Calder …. Bishop of Grasse
Richard Felix …. Chief Magistrate

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