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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer   B+

DreamWorks Pictures / Constantin Film

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writers: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer (from the novel by Patrick Süskind)
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Karoline Herfurth, David Calder, Simon Chandler, John Hurt.

Review by Rob Vaux

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer makes for an odd yet entirely appropriate companion piece to director Tom Tykwer's kinetic calling card Run Lola Run. Both films deal with the deconstruction of human identity, reducing our emotions, desires, and beliefs to so much stimulus response. Lola achieved it with an iconoclastic post-punk scream: fragmenting its title character into shards of movement and a cosmic reset button which let her relive the same 20 minutes over and over until she got it right. Perfume, on the other hand, finds the key to our unraveling in a much older era, marked not by the modern plasticity of time and perception, but by more historic (and earthier) concerns. Specifically, our sense of smell, something we rarely consider today, but which was stretched to its limits in a period when the streets were paved with cow flop and human lives were often measured in weeks. The need to cover up that vibrant, rotting stench -- and thus to deny our inextricable participation in a wild and messy reality -- forms the movie's central thesis.

To achieve it, Tykwer starts by rendering our olfactory senses in purely visual terms, using rapid cuts and intense close-ups to conjure a seething 18th-century Paris as savage as any jungle. Fish guts, lamp oil, that dog funk which never comes out no matter how many times you bathe them... all of it swirls and presses against the screen in fits of witty near-nausea. Is it any wonder that the rich and privileged sought to escape such a stench by turning to perfume? The dappled scent of jasmine or rose can render even the filthiest garbage heap tolerable, and thus allow Europe's largest city to forget the squalor in which it resides.

The film's protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is neither rich nor privileged -- the orphaned son of a fishmonger left for dead among the city's overwhelming underclass -- but he understands the importance of odor as few ever have. Others find something a bit off-putting about him, though they never quite put their finger on why. It may be that he exudes no scent of his own -- the only creature on the planet to do so -- which renders him fundamentally alien to our instinctive forebrains. It may be that his own sense of smell is supernaturally strong, able to identify individuals solely with his nostrils and separate single odors from a mélange of thousands. Or it may be that he has a cold look in his eye when he watches other people: the detached, clinical stare of a Hannibal Lecter or a John Wayne Gacy. Whatever the reason, Grenouille finds his calling through happenstance, stumbling across has-been perfumer Guiseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) after a Darwinian childhood of barely survived horrors. Baldini quickly recognizes the boy's extraordinary gifts, and leverages him into creating new and exotic perfumes that the elder man can take credit for. In exchange, he teaches Grenouille the trade, while allowing him a modicum of experimentation that often veers into the unintentionally ghoulish.

As the boy matures, however, the "unintentional" part of that equation soon disappears. For of all the scents in the world, none can match that of pretty young girls, and bottling it means forcibly extracting the essence from its original owners. It gets messy, but it also gives Grenouille a purpose towards which he can strive: the creation of the ultimate perfume. When he travels to the provincial town of Grasse -- capital of the industry -- to complete his apprenticeship, no one notices the coincidental appearance of a Ripper-like killer on its streets.

Based on a purportedly unfilmable novel by Patrick Süskind, the narrative proves mordantly clever, but rarely complex -- kept on track by a gravelly voice-over from John Hurt (who has apparently cornered the market on such duties). Tykwer revels in the base, sordid details of the era, highlighting the story's cold ironies with obvious relish. Perfume's visual style -- expertly rendered by DP Frank Griege, production designer Uli Hanisch, and costumer Pierre-Yves Gayraud -- is at once gorgeous and repellant, evoking the beauty of the era while simultaneously thrusting its filth in our face. Life is cheap in this supposed Golden Age, and misery is the order of the day. Grasse proves cleaner than Paris, but no less debased, its smaller populace the only thing making it tolerable. Here, men like Antoine Richis (a well-cast Alan Rickman) presume to embody the best humanity has to offer, indulging in aristocratic finery and protecting a beautiful daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) from the world's slings and arrows. Even such flawed altruism is an anomaly, however. Most people simply ignore the inconvenient suffering of those around them, shutting their eyes to the dark only to piously point the finger when "monstrous" murders distinguish themselves from "unimportant" ones. Grenouille's gruesome scent-harvesting shakes them up, but is really no less brutal than similar acts that pass unnoticed every day. At least his compulsions are honest, the film claims. He wishes only to experience human contact -- contact that may be beyond him, but which he seeks out the only way he knows. Is such motivation really any worse than the hypocrisy of a society that decries it?

Tykwer views this passive cruelty with acerbic wit, aided by an understated Hoffman, whose low-rent schemer neatly embodies the film's satirical tone. Though unduly long, Perfume's combination of arch cleverness, sumptuous imagery, and sharp disdain never proves boring. And my is its cynicism potent. It's not that it doesn't care about the figures it portrays. It simply understands the grubby animal nature in which they constantly wallow: eating, fucking, and killing at the behest of impulses fused into their DNA. Their foolishness comes not from that base nature, but from assuming that they can rise above it. That's a concept worthy of Swift, which Perfume develops into a bleakly comic fable, drenched in obsession and the vicious observation of human limitations. The smell won't ever come out, it tells us; the least we can do is remember that it's there.

Review published 12.26.2006.

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