PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Ben Winshaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt
MPAA Rating: (for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images)
Running Time: 2:27
Release Date: 12/27/06 (limited); 1/5/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
For a movie that achieves so much on a technical level, it's a shame there's such a thematic hollowness at its core. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is at times hypnotically beautiful and at others explicitly distressing, but it's all for naught by the time the movie reaches its whopper of an inexplicable finale. Actually, the ending is understandable, but the major character hook that leads to it comes completely out of left field in the narrative just before the climax (with multiple climaxes—you'll see), leading to a simple, pat attempt to sum up the main character's plight. What's jarring about the conclusion is that the movie sets itself up to be about one element of the character only to attempt undeserved sympathy for him in the end—undeserved, not because he's a cold-blooded killer but because his ultimate desire is spelt out so clearly and out of the blue. The screenplay (written by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, and director Tom Tykwer) works itself into a corner and doesn't know where to go, and I'm not sure if that's a problem inherent to Patrick Süskind's novel or not. Either way, the movie version feels forced, even though it doesn't seem to know what it means.
The opening scene sees Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) sentenced to a particularly brutal form of execution as a crowd cheers. From here, we go back to Grenouille's origins. The son of a fish-monger, he was born underneath his mother's market table. She assumed he was stillborn like her other births, but when he eventually cries out, his mother is hanged for what is perceived as the attempted murder of her baby. Sent to the orphanage, Grenouille is almost killed by the other jealous orphans but saved by the headmistress. As he grows up, Grenouille discovers he has an almost supernatural sense of smell. He can smell at great distances (in one sequence, he lies on the ground and sniffs out the contents of a stream), and as he matures, he amasses a large library of the scents available to him. At 15, Grenouille is sold by the headmistress (who is subsequently robbed and murdered) to a tannery. On a delivery errand to Paris, he encounters a young girl (Karoline Herfurth) selling plums whose natural aroma intoxicates him, but when he attempts to subdue her, he suffocates her. On another delivery, Grenouille meets Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a formerly famous and prosperous perfumer, and quickly becomes his apprentice.
The story progresses through the voice-over narration of John Hurt, giving the movie the feel and flow of a fable or a very demented bed-time story. Although such a device could overly simplify the material—and it does at the finale—the narration actually works in the movie's favor. The mixing of the fairy-tale tone of the voice-over with the deeply disturbing progression of Grenouille's attempts to capture the odor of specific women to create the greatest perfume the world has ever smelt is one of the movie's stronger points. The actual process of creating perfume, related to the young apprentice by Baldini is also fascinating, and it gives Grenouille the goal of extracting the scent of 13 women to create his ultimate perfume. His travels bring him to Grasse, a town that specializes in enfleurage, and in that method he discovers a much more effective method for capturing the natural smells of women than his first attempt to rub the dead plum girl's body. The critical component of Grenouille's perfume is Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), who acts like an 18th-century criminal profiler, declaring the need to get into the mind of the killer of the beautiful young women.
Tykwer stumbles in trying to translate the nature of the olfactory senses to film. There are some lovely shots of pretty landscapes when Baldini discovers his apprentice's talent, but this kind of trickery comes across shallow. There's an especially outlandish moment as Grenouille sniffs out Laura, who is miles away, and the camera spins around him and quickly moves across the countryside to her riding away. Some of the visual and audio cues used to give the sensation of smell work better, especially in regards to the scenes involving the ugly smells of Paris, and despite certain unnecessary flamboyances, the movie is mounted with tremendous skill. Cinematographer Frank Griebe and the design team capture the lush extravagance and easy life of Richis' world and the horrible dankness of the streets of Paris. The movie's score by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer is haunting, comprised almost entirely of strings and a single soprano voice. As for performances, Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman seem out of place (the former for his somewhat silly Italian accent, the latter for his character's anachronistic psychological prowess). The movie really belongs to relative newcomer Ben Whishaw, who embodies Grenouille's creepy inquisitiveness with frightening effect.
As an intellectual musing on the sensual nature of humanity, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is distant and enigmatic even to itself, and when the movie attempts to hit an emotional note with its central character, it cheats. Stanley Kubrick reportedly decided Süskind's novel was unfilmable, and Tykwer doesn't make a strong case against that decision.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.