‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’

From Tom Tykwer (‘Run, Lola, Run’), this film about a superhuman sense of smell moves less on dialogue and more on mood and effect.

By: Bob Brown
   To be blessed with a unique talent is to be cursed. Jean- Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), the hero of this movie, first saw light in the gutters of 18th-century Paris, where he was born with a superhuman sense of smell. Growing up in an orphanage, he hones his freakish gift. But the first aroma to bewitch him as a young man is that of a pretty street vendor selling plums. He follows her aromatic trail to a small bench in an alleyway, where she is cutting up fruit. She is startled and resists his doglike approach until he smothers her by accident. Never mind. His nostrils explore her body. But he is frustrated that he cannot preserve her smell. From there on, his mission is to discover the secret of preserving aromas.
   When he pokes his nose into the aristocratic perfume trade, he finds the means to exploit his gift to the hilt. But his new skills cannot free him from his obsession. His nostrils take in all the world’s scents, yet he himself has no scent, no identity. He settles for creating and preserving the most exquisite scent — an ineffable perfume with no equal.
   Perfume is based on Das Parfum, the first novel by the German writer Patrick Süskind, a student of European history who is a sometime screenwriter and full-time recluse. As an indication of its dark attraction, the book’s protagonist inspired Kurt Cobain’s song "Scentless Apprentice," from Nirvana’s In Utero album.
   The character Grenouille has the ingredients of what the literary critic Michael Andre Bernstein calls the "abject hero." He is a figure who embodies both the servile and the rebellious. Grenouille is a slave to others, and yet he defies the conventions of the society into which he has been accidentally born. His native gift enables him to serve French fashion as a perfume-house laborer at the same time he is discarding morality in his secret pursuit.
   Multidimensional filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) directed and scored this movie from a screenplay he co-wrote with Andrew Birken and Bernd Eichinger. The movie is Grenouille’s life in two stages: his rise from the slums of Paris to an apprenticeship with one of the city’s once-premier perfumers, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman); then his journey to the Provencal city of Grasse in his quest to create and capture the world’s most intoxicating fragrance.
   The film moves less on dialogue than on mood and effect. Grenouille, who doesn’t speak until he is a teenager, is monosyllabic. Wishaw’s challenge is to convey Grenouille’s nearly feral mind through gesture and expression. It’s a complex character, at once childlike, brilliant, amoral and yet deeply evil. He is a force of nature beyond humanity. The closest film equivalent, except for the evil, is perhaps Edward Scissorhands.
   The settings are characters in themselves. Tykwer has the chops to deliver a visual feast that is pre-revolutionary France. The disgusting filth and muck of the city’s worst byways are thickly slathered. The credits include a bow to the crew who maintained dirt surfaces, of which there are acres. Of course, much of the old city has been destroyed or paved over, so set designers and digital artists were called on to revive it, and eerily so. Particularly striking are the bridges, on which shops and apartment houses were overloaded.
   The hills and lavender fields of Provence and the medieval city of Grasse, on the other hand, hardly need touching up. They’re built-in movie sets. But the camera goes further, the way of Grenouille’s hypersensitive nose, through a dead rat’s matted fur to the busy maggots beneath; from fields to the ponds to the frogs to their newly hatched tadpoles under water. Cinematography by frequent Tykwer collaborator Frank Griebe is brilliant.
   Set design and costuming are among the most authentic-looking on the big screen today. Every scene has the feel and look of the period. The score, in a quasi-period manner, was co-created by Tykwer with Rienhold Heil and Johnny Kilmek, and lushly orchestrated by the Berlin Philharmonic.
   At two and a half hours, this is a long sit. There are too many characters to mention here and legions of background actors (who must have gotten extra pay for the extraordinary things they were asked to do). Except for the usually fine Dustin Hoffman (who is oddly miscast as a foppish old Italian), the main actors are splendid. Especially good is Wishaw. Alan Rickman plays the Grasse fat-cat Antoine Richis, whose daughter, Laura (a radiant 16-year-old, Rachel Hurd-Wood), is the object of Grenouille’s obsession. They anchor the last quarter of the film, which is really an extended murder-chase sequence with a surprise ending.
   The richly disquieting voiceover by John Hurt, omniscient narrator of connecting events, gives the feeling of a fireside tale being told. If you like costume dramas and stories that amble along, this film’s for you. It takes as long to tell this as it does for Grenouille to invent the fragrance of all fragrances. The only thing missing is smell-o-rama.
Rated R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.