Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (click for larger image)Starring Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Karoline Herfurth

Directed by Tom Tykwer

If all you know of director Tom Tykwer’s work is the frenetic, uber-cool Run Lola Run, then you’re likely to be blown away by what he has accomplished with Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Hell, I’ve seen just about everything the man has done over the past decade, and I was still surprised by the film’s awesome scope and amazing beauty. Tykwer’s talent has reached a pinnacle with Perfume that no doubt many other directors will be striving to emulate for years to come much like his main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s, all-consuming quest to create the ultimate scent.

Let’s look for a moment at this Jean-Baptiste (Whishaw). Born in 1738 and left for dead in the streets of the Paris fish market by his mother, his sole value is the money he brings to the orphanage in which he is placed. But it soon becomes clear that Jean-Baptiste is no ordinary boy; he has a sense of smell the likes of which the world has never known. No scent is deemed good or bad; it just is. Feared by the other children because he’s so “different,” upon reaching the appropriate age, he is sold by the orphanage head to a local tanner. On a trip to the city with the tanner, he is nearly overcome by all the odors he encounters, most notably that of a beautiful red-haired girl selling plums, who meets a most tragic end at the hands of our young protagonist. Shortly thereafter he makes his way to the shop of renowned perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, who has fallen on some rather lean times as a result of his rival’s great success with an innovative fragrance that has taken Paris by storm. Jean-Baptiste convinces Baldini (Hoffman) to hire him on as an apprentice, and the boy quickly learns everything he can from his new master. Before long the tables are turned, and Baldini is learning from him. But still Jean-Baptiste’s desire to capture and preserve the essence of a woman in perfume form is unachievable.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer review (click for larger image)Realizing that the boy’s talents far exceed those of his own, Baldini gives him permission to travel to the legendary town of Grasse to study the art of enfleurage (absorbing scent with animal fat). It is here where Jean-Baptiste becomes truly obsessed with creating the perfect embodiment of virginal womanhood. One young woman in particular, Laura Richis (Hurd-Wood) — another redhead interestingly enough — becomes his primary target. She remains elusive, but other bodies start piling up, and the townspeople begin to panic at the thought of a mass murderer in their midst. By this time Jean-Baptiste has refined his technique, but the final ingredient, the lovely Laura’s innocent essence, is lacking. Her father, the affluent and influential Antoine Richis (Rickman), senses something is afoot and does everything in his power to protect his beloved daughter, but Jean-Baptiste will not be dissuaded, and the chase is on.

This is the story of Perfume in its simplest form, but there is much greater depth and detail involved. Its opening scenes in particular are some of the most gorgeous yet ghastly you’re likely to see all year. Tykwer’s command of the camera and the audience’s attention goes well beyond impressive. In a sort of sensory overload, it’s as if we, the viewers, can smell each aroma portrayed onscreen. Frank Griebe, the cinematographer, shows his brilliance in every frame. It’s obvious why Tykwer has chosen to work exclusively with him throughout his career. Every aspect of the period is accounted for from the dirt and grime of the Parisian lower class to the lush landscape of Provence to the sumptuous clothing and accessories of the wealthy as represented by Richis and his social circle. The music (which, as is his custom, includes works by Tykwer and his usual cohorts Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek), sound design, sets, effects, and editing are all top-notch. It does run a tad long, but with all there is to savor, Tykwer can be forgiven for indulging himself a bit.

Speaking of savoring, the next best thing about Perfume after Tykwer is the acting. Ben Whishaw is a revelation. Appearing in practically every scene, he dominates the screen and reminds this reviewer of a young Steve McQueen. He makes Jean-Baptiste an atypically handsome, intriguingly aloof anti-hero for the ages. We are equally charmed and repelled by the character. Yes, he’s a murderer as the title proclaims, but he still somehow manages to elicit our sympathy, most notably when he realizes incredulously that he, himself, carries no odor whatsoever. It’s remarkably poignant and compelling. The supporting players are also noteworthy. When I first saw that Hoffman was cast as Baldini, I had a moment of concern as he hasn’t had the best track record with me as of late. But my worries were for naught as he embraced the role and filled it with nuances and intensity I haven’t seen from him in years. Bravo to the return of Dustin as we knew him in the 60’s and 70’s! And Rickman shines as well. His part may be small, but it’s pivotal, and he hits every note perfectly. We don’t question his love for Laura for a second and feel his pain when the inevitable happens. Every other actor imbues his or her role with the same distinction and fits the era flawlessly. There’s been some quibbling about the unusually bright red color of Laura’s hair (I’m a stickler for such details myself; i.e., the freshly bleached blonde in Reign of Fire and the impossibly clean Heather Graham in From Hell both drove me crazy), but considering that henna has been used in such a manner for thousands of years, I didn’t have any problem with it here at all.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer review (click for larger image)Unfortunately, Perfume does contain one significant shortcoming: its climax (no pun intended to those who have seen the film and know what I’m talking about). I haven’t read the book on which it is based, but from the small amount of research I did prior to writing this review, apparently Perfume is quite true to its source material. I fully understand the point of the piece, but when audience members laugh out loud at a time when they should be engrossed and moved emotionally, there’s a definite disconnect at play. Perhaps it is better served by visualizing it in one’s own head instead of seeing it fleshed out on the big screen. Personally I could easily look past the more fantastical elements of the scene, but people seem to be split 50/50 on the matter, much like what happened in another recent film, The Prestige. Whereas I was on the side of those who didn’t particularly care for the end result of The Prestige, I’m on the opposite side of the fence with Perfume and feel the storyline does an adequate job of leading the viewer to its fairly unrealistic finale (although I’m typically no fan of gratuitous Christ-like imagery of the type found here). But that’s for each individual to decide, and I encourage you to see it with an open mind and form your own conclusions. With so much that’s right about Perfume, I can’t let that one small component deduct too much from my rating, especially since what follows the moment and comprises the real ending is wholly in keeping with the overall tone of the film — and delightfully grotesque.

So here it is only January of 2007, and I’ve already found what’s sure to be one of my top picks of the year. While it may be light on gore and typical scares, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is full of everything else that makes up a good film — horror or otherwise. As one of its taglines states, Perfume introduces us to “an intoxicating world of passion, obsession, and murder,” three of my favorite subjects. If they are among yours as well, then make sure you don’t miss out on the pleasure to be had by immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of Perfume.

4 out of 5

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Debi Moore

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