Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) possesses an extraordinary sense of smell. Sadly, he also lacks the ability to truly love: When Perfume: The Story of a Murderer opens, it is the eve of Grenouille’s execution for murdering scores of women.
Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) and based on the best-selling novel by Patrick Suskind, Perfume is a tad over-long and as obsessed with its anti-hero as he is with perfume and young women. But the film is nevertheless an intoxicating blend of Grimm’s fairytale, psychological character study, and thriller. It also has a commendable (and very European) ability neither to revel in gratuitous violence nor merely stand in as a morality tale.
Tykwer is clearly enchanted with Grenouille as a kind of aesthetic monster, a la Hannibal Lecter. In spite of his brutal acts, we are made to root for him, to feel sorry for him, and then to be horrified by him. Through this poet of the nose, Tykwer explores the dark side of desire and art’s obsessive power to destroy the artist, so
After our introduction to Grenouille on death row, Perfume takes us on a journey backward: We watch Grenouille’s rise from the putrid slums of Paris to become assistant to one of the city’s most revered perfumers (played charmingly by Dustin Hoffman). After a fatal encounter with a beautiful young fruit seller, a dark obsession takes hold of Grenouille: He wants to distill and preserve the scent of young, virginal women. He goes on a pilgrimage to the Mecca of perfume-making — Grasse, France — and there, he sows the seeds of his demise: He begins plucking women off the street like flowers, murdering them, and preserving their “essence” into perfume.
It is said that when a person loses one of her senses, others are heightened to compensate. Perfume overcompensates for its inability to provide us with the sensory experience of its subject (smell) through its cinematography and sound. The grays of Grenouille’s childhood slums aren’t merely gray; they’re multi-layered symphonies of gray worthy of a Rembrandt painting. The scents that so beguile Grenouille are conveyed through color: the red of a young woman’s hair shot through with sunshine, the bright yellow of the fruit she sells, and the crimson of rose petals cascading onto the floor in the perfumer’s atelier.
The film also notably compensates for the lack of smell through sound, and there are times when you will hear more than you’d like to. The scene of Grenouille’s birth, for example, is a visual and auditory riot in which the sight and sound of slithery maggots competes with a baby that's not so much born as “squirted” into the revolting mess. Let's just say I was happy that John Waters’ gimmicky “Smell-O-Vision” scratch 'n' sniff cards were not part of the movie package.
By turns witty, gruesome, and poetic, Perfume riveted me from beginning to end. (The scene when Grenouille is to be tortured and executed in front of an entire city is worth the price of admission — and not for reasons one might suspect. Think Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights meets Woodstock, 1969.) Like a great and strong perfume, long after your initial encounter with it, the movie's essence will linger.