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Overall Rating
4.03

Awesome49.25%
Worth A Look: 26.87%
Average: 10.45%
Pretty Bad: 4.48%
Total Crap: 8.96%

6 reviews, 31 user ratings


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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
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by Jay Seaver

"Passes the smell test with flying colors."
4 stars

I went into "Perfume" expecting strange but very little else in particular. I just knew that it was Tom Tykwer's latest film and thus likely to be interesting. My first surprise came when the actors were speaking English rather than the filmmakers' native German or the French of the film's setting, but new and interesting surprises would come at a regular clip.

The film starts with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) about to be executed in an especially brutal way. We flash back to his birth in the most squalid, smelly section of Paris in 1738 - a fish market, where his mother squeezes him out and leaves him on the floor while serving a customer, thinking him to be a stillbirth like her previous four pregnancies. His cries alert the people, and he is soon shipped to Madame Gaillard's orphanage, where he discovers that he has a superhuman sense of smell, one which is wasted at the tannery to which Mme. Gaillard sells him. When making deliveries to the city, though, he discovers wonderful smells - notably that of a pretty girl selling plums (Karoline Herfurth). Her smell is so intoxicating that he wishes to find a way to preserve it, leading to an apprenticeship under once-celebrated parfumier Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and then to Grasse, the perfume capital of Europe. As he nears Grasse, he is captivated by the scent of debutante Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood), but when his experiments in preserving a woman's distinctive scent coincide with a series of womens' bodies being found, Laura's father Antoine (Alan Rickman) fears for her safety and becomes obsessed with catching the killer.

That's a rather torturous summary of a somewhat meandering film, and in some ways the roundabout path it takes can be just as torturous. There is a lot of narration at times, as if John Hurt is just reading long sections of the original novel, and when the focus suddenly shifts from Jean-Baptiste's childhood to Baldini's backstory, it's like he's picked up another book. There are other bits detailing the bad ends that Jean-Baptiste's parent figures encounter that, while darkly amusing, maybe aren't the greatest idea. Doing so presents Jean-Baptiste as merely a sort of nexus of bad fortune, as he has no direct hand in those events, rather than the source of it. Tykwer also expects the audience to make progressively larger leaps, and while Jean-Baptiste's unusual olfactory sense is a necessary one for the premise, and the one at the climax is foreshadowed, but the last may be a little too fairy-tale.

All the talking that Tykwer has John Hurt do is, however, counterbalanced by the way he attempts to use sight and sound to convey scent. He's basically trying to induce a sort of synesthesia in the audience, and while I don't know that he actually manages to get us to smell something that's not there, he does manage to communicate their essences in a way beyond the audiovisual. When the girl with the plums slices them in half, little drops of juice suggest a sensation being liberated. Squishing sounds in the fish market are louder than the rest of the soundtrack, suggesting something sickening, offensive and overpowering. Laura is a bit of a cipher for a while, so that our entire impression of her is sensory, as it is for Jean-Baptiste.

Ben Whishaw also has a tricky job as Jean-Baptiste, portraying someone who experiences the world in a fundamentally different way from his audience. He slurs his speech, indicating that sound isn't as important to him as it is to us. His body language is slouched and awkward; he just never seems to know how to fit in with other people who tolerate him for his olfactory genius. There's genuine delight in his eyes when he smells something new and exciting, but also the uncaring dullness of a obsessive as he does his grim work.

The other performances around him are livelier. Dustin Hoffman plays another dry eccentric here, which seems to be his current stock-in-trade, but it's an entertaining turn. Baldini's greed and ego are simple and familiar compared to Jean-Baptiste's exotic mania. He's a simple, minor scoundrel. Rachel Hurd-Wood's main purpose as Laura is to entrance us and Jean-Baptiste with her beauty, but she builds Laura up into a figure worthy of adoration: She's spoiled, but also innocent, and there's mischief to all her actions. Alan Rickman gets to balance his sentimental and authoritative personae as Richis, going from humorously exasperated when the city fathers won't listen to his (perhaps anachronistically) reasonable complaints about the investigation to white-hot anger when confronting the men who put his daughter in danger.

Patrick Suskind's novel provides an atmospheric serial-killer story. Even putting aside Jean-Baptiste's strangeness, there are a bunch of compelling bits, from the quiet shock of the killer claiming his first victim quite by accident all the way through the suspense of wondering whether Laura will survive or not, since there's already enough bodies for the killer to be executed without mercy when caught. Tykwer makes the two and a half hours pass quickly, and even the grimy, run-down parts of the world are fascinating - Paris is so crowded that there are buildings on bridges, and one scene is almost steampunk, with a woman's body suspended in what looks like a mad scientist's gadget.

"Perfume" can't quite translate its protagonist's perceptions the way it tries to, although it makes a fine effort and seldom has to stoop to rendering them as visual effects. If it were just trying to do that as an art piece, it would probably be a failure, but it's a pretty effective period crime drama, and the moments when it does meet its ambitious goals are well worth it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15309&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/18/07 14:38:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2006 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/09/17 Louise (the actual one) A masterpiece and very faithful to the excellent novel. Recommended. 5 stars
7/13/10 chris. wouldn't mind watching it again 4 stars
7/26/09 Jimbo I Found It was very well done 5 stars
7/22/09 Eric Terrible movie, would have turned off if i were not with friends. Moves downhil for 2 1/2 h 1 stars
12/04/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 5 stars
1/24/08 Kai worst movie ive seen in years! outrageously stupid, the scenario and acting comes off fakey 1 stars
1/18/08 Tony This is an intellectual parable, and is not about serial killers. 5 stars
11/19/07 The Russian Lunch Lady I like "deep" things, but this was too darn weird to be deep. 1 stars
10/30/07 Randy Marsh A review shouldnt give away the entire plot. 5 stars
10/24/07 Donald A mess... but the images of 18th century France are stunning. 2 stars
10/20/07 russell Brilliant. Despite the many misgivings, I agree that the film is spellbinding. 5 stars
9/25/07 Alison Absolute garbage 1 stars
9/19/07 jeanne Absolute narcissistic bollocks! I want my 2-1/2 hours back. 1 stars
8/21/07 Jennifer magic realism only works if its take on human nature rings true 2 stars
8/21/07 RodBell Until the Orgy an amazing black comedy then it just becomes a comedy, not handled well 4 stars
8/17/07 Stanley S Lavsky this movie was like a poem. I wish other directors had the eye and the foresight of Tyk 5 stars
8/14/07 scotty I loved it!! A stunning, enrapturing piece of art! 5 stars
8/08/07 Pam I thought it had a strong beginning, but fell apart. Hoffman was so miscast. 2 stars
8/07/07 Clint Jacobs Enthralling beginning but fizzles towards the end 3 stars
7/03/07 William Goss A well-crafted and compellingly peculiar curiosity, despite some third-act overindulgence. 4 stars
4/01/07 adam I want to be a perfumer! 5 stars
4/01/07 Karl-Heinz Schedwig Die Revolution frisst seine Kinder- i.e. the ends succumbs to the means. 4 stars
3/21/07 David Pollastrini I like the poster 4 stars
2/19/07 Nick Maday Absolutely amazing movie. I think I stayed completely still through the entire thing. 5 stars
2/02/07 kris Superb. I like the ending. Whishaw is goood. 5 stars
1/27/07 A Lawrence great 4 stars
1/22/07 Wu Tze Liang an amazing film, so true to the book. breathtaking scenes tell of how this haunted individu 5 stars
1/17/07 jess flintof what a load of crap 1 stars
1/12/07 Barry Allen Spellbinding! 5 stars
1/08/07 Archie loved it !! 5 stars
1/06/07 Janice Robillard The marriage of an amazing book to an amazing director yields amazing results! 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  27-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2007

UK
  08-Dec-2006

Australia
  01-Feb-2007




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