Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
2006Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman
here are thousands of movies in the world but only two leading characters: the ones who do good things and the ones who do bad things. In case the subtitle left you in any confusion, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer—among the more perverse concept vehicles to be released in a flurry of year-end Oscar baiting—is a movie singularly and fatally obsessed with that second kind, the leading man who does some very bad things.
His name is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born beneath a fish stand in the city’s dirtiest market district and gifted with a superior sense of smell. His early years are painted in outrageous filth and poverty until his nose leads him to an apprenticeship with an aging Italian perfumer (Dustin Hoffman). The downside of having a canine-sharp sense of smell? Murder, obviously. After Grenouille accidentally strangles a pretty redhead on the street, he becomes obsessed with preserving scent. To the fulfillment of this otherwise harmless drive, he kills thirteen beautiful girls to make a perfume. Fin?
Though many people have read the popular source novel by Patrick Süskind, I admit I am not among them and it’s therefore hard for me to determine whether the relative failure (an impressive one nonetheless) of this adaptation is the fault of irredeemable concept or something more localized. The basic plot strives to toe a line of provocative magical realism squeezed somewhere between humor and obscenity, and sure enough, director Tom Tykwer imagines the murder spree as something morbidly witty as the dead girls are found in peaceful elegance, their smooth naked bodies extended like marble statues. Working most of the film in a conceivable reality (albeit a clever reality in which characters who’ve outlived their usefulness to the screenplay invariably die), Tykwer gently guides the movie to an escalating realm of fantasy that’s quite nearly mesmerizing.
And then there are those smells. The movie revolves around Grenouille and his world—the one entirely composed of smells. Tykwer conjures from his decidedly visual medium all the smells of a fish market and a field of lavender, the odor of sweat and the perfume of grass. With a wizard’s touch, Tykwer manages to push his audience into a world in which the pursuit of intoxicating smells isn’t merely a voiced-over narrative but a goal of fundamental importance.
And when you weigh all of these strengths: how visually stunning the film is, how close it comes to satisfaction on the level of quirky fairy tale, and how deftly Tykwer moves his camera and runs his story, how perfectly he delves into Grenouille’s psyche, it’s hard to apprehend why exactly Perfume is just so utterly fleeting.
In truth, though, it comes down to exactly what Tykwer does best—the film hitches its life to Grenouille, and he’s about as boring a character as movies make. While all leading characters do good things or bad things, Grenouille is a character who simply never thinks in these terms. There’s only smell. To the audience, then, there is only a basic pursuit unfettered by questions of morality. He’s the least complicated sociopath ever committed to celluloid, a silent, skinny kid with the wide-eyed intensity of someone operating on another plane of existence—he’s Orlando Bloom with an olfactory fetish. He’s not enough to sustain two and a half hours of visual imagery onslaught. He’s not even enough to evoke the questions a movie with a 14-person body count probably should.
Through the lens of Grenouille, all sense of gender politics are rendered irrelevant; all questions of motivation and morality are handily disposed of. The only compelling narrative draw, basic human involvement, is totally silenced. There are some great shots in this film—particularly the opening scene in which a young man in the shadows of a jail cell slowly inches his face towards the camera and, his nose illuminated, sniffs the air—but there are no great characters, no great conflicts, no great issues here. There’s only the screen, and, for a finite couple of hours, how beautiful a smell can look.
Perfume is currently playing in limited release.
By: Amanda Andrade
Published on: 2007-01-22