Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/29/06 00:15:18

"I Love The Smell Of Purity In The Morning . . .It Smells Like Giggity!"
5 stars (Awesome)

If Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell had decided one day to team up and co-direct a film together, the results probably would have looked a lot like “Perfume: The Story of a Murder,” the singularly odd screen adaptation of the best-selling Patrick Suskind novel. It fuses the magisterial visual style and sardonic humor of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” with the screw-loose audaciousness of any number of Russell’s 1970's epics and the result is a work that is decidedly uneven–how could it not be?–and which will probably be dismissed by many as little more than an expensive chunk of lurid trash. Make no mistake–it is lurid trash but it is lurid trash of such a high caliber that I found myself delighting in it throughout despite, or possibly because of, its joyful excesses.

Set in 18th century Paris, “Perfume” opens in the jail cell of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a young man who sits calmly even as the sounds of a mob thirsting for his blood grow louder and louder. Most of the film is a flashback that charts how Grenouille wound up in that cell, starting with his birth in the midst of Paris’s most squalid slum. A freakish-looking baby, he is presumed dead until he is revived by the smells filling his nose. It turns out that he has been blessed with a honker that can savor and discern practically every single scent, even those not obvious to normal people. Sold into virtual slavery as a child, his entire world view is changed when, while making deliveries in the heart of the city, he comes across a perfume shop and is overwhelmed by the beauty he inhales. Eventually, he encounters Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) a down-on-his-luck Italian perfume dealer, and goes to work in his shop where he copies popular scents and invents new ones in exchange for learning all the tricks of the trade, especially the ability to preserve the scent of a living thing.

This is important to him because during his earlier wanderings through the streets of Paris, he discovered the most intoxicating aroma in the world–the innocence and purity of a young lass of virtue true. Alas, this aroma disappears once the lass in question expires (something else that Grenouille discovered that night) and the ability to somehow capture it forever becomes his obsession. When he does figure out how to do it (after several unsuccessful and icky experiments, one involving a cat), Grenouille begins to pick off a number of young women in order to make the ultimate perfume. Although local bigwig Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) tries to warn the townspeople early on that a predator with a taste for nubile lovelies is in their midst–a significant worry for him since his beloved daughter, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), is the most lovely and nubile of them all (and may I just state at this time how much I love the word ‘nubile’)–they refuse to close the metaphorical beaches until Grenouille racks up a significant body and scent count (in every sense of the word) that he hopes to culminate with Laura. Eventually Grenouille is captured, in a most ironic manner, but he still has one more trick up, leading to the kind of you-gotta-see-this! climax that all but assures that this film will never appear on commercial television.

Ever since it was published in 1984, Suskind’s novel has obsessed a number of filmmakers–Kubrick was said to have been interested in adapting it and Ridley Scott flirted with it for years–but it never got made, possibly because they had no idea of how to approach material this seemingly kinky and depraved and possibly because they couldn’t figure out how to cinematically tell a story that relies so heavily on a sense that cannot be conveyed in cinematic terms unless they went the John Waters route and handed out scratch-n-sniff cards with every ticket. (Apparently no one pointed out to them that the book didn’t have any actual smells to it and that absence didn’t seem to hurt it a bit.) In bringing the story to the screen, director Tom Tykwer, the man behind the 1998 pop-art masterpiece “Run Lola Run,” has made the correct decision to embrace the lurid tone of the piece–especially in its ambivalent portrayal of the murderous Grenouille–instead of trying to tap-dance around it. The film is a riot of heaving bosoms, lush visuals and weirdo behavior and Tykwer, perhaps happy to be cutting loose after such somber recent efforts as “The Princess and the Warrior” and “Heaven,” is clearly reveling in every over-the-top moment of it. (At times, Tykwer’s approach reminded me of the similar take that Scott used in bringing his incredibly underrated adaptation of “Hannibal” to life in all its Grand Guignol glory.) He even manages to overcome the problem regarding the lack of actual scents by creating such an overwhelmingly palpable sense of atmosphere in every scene–be it a repellent fish market or a lush garden maze (one of the many Kubrick homages on display here)–that you hardly need the actual aroma to get the point. As a result, “Perfume” is the rare period film that creates a world that feels real and lived in instead of a glorified museum exhibit that the characters tiptoe through as if they were afraid of breaking something.

Usually in a film of this type, the actors tend to contribute a collection of uniformly mannered performances that, aside from the occasional hambone, are so concerned with enunciating everything in a proper and non-modern manner that they wind up sucking most of the fun out of the room. Here, we are given a sampler of a number of wildly different performance styles that wind up complementing each other instead of clashing. Rickman goes for a naturalistic portrayal as the lone voice of reason that may come as a surprise for those expecting the overly ripe line readings we know he is capable of. Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, gleefully chomps the scenery as Grenouille’s mentor with an accent so broad and bewildering that it makes Chico Marx sound like a model of linguistic fidelity by comparison. Of course, Grenouille is the trickiest role in the entire piece–the part is most non-verbal and for it to work, we have to find a way to like and sympathize with him even as we recoil from his sordid actions–and relative newcomer Whishaw is quite good at simultaneously suggesting both of these aspects of his personality while hardly saying a word.

Paragons of virtue and good taste–cinematic and otherwise–will no doubt describe “Perfume” as silly and vulgar trash. Actually, I would have no problem in using those words to describe it as well but when I say “silly and vulgar trash” with a sense of giddy admiration instead of offended distaste. Alternately haunting, hilarious (there is an especially inspired running gag that chronicles the fates of those who took in Grenouille after he leaves them) and always compelling–if only just to see how much further Tykwer and Co. can possibly push things–“Perfume” is a compulsively entertaining bit of luridness that, when compared to many of the self-consciously profound films of the season, comes up smelling like a rose by comparison.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.