Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 01/31/07 09:06:13

"The stench of perfection."
5 stars (Awesome)

A quick glance at my profile shows that I might be biased going into director Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” In the eight years since I initially saw “Run Lola Run,” nothing I’ve seen since can compare to that perfection, meaning “Lola” was, is and probably always will be my favorite film. What’s unclear is whether that will make me enjoy “Perfume” more or less, as I’m predisposed to liking Tykwer, but I’m also prepared to be critical of his work. No matter which is the case (probably a mixture of both, really), it doesn’t stop the macabre “Perfume” from showing off Tykwer’s tremendous growth. So now the only question is, how does one grow beyond perfection?

My aunt recently told me that the Food Network has replaced beer and football as a new weekend obsession. It’s certainly an idea I understand; as I write this, I’m watching Emily get booted from Bravo’s “Top Chef” for assaulting her surf ‘n’ turf with too much salt. But what makes the concept so confounding is that I honestly have no way of knowing that. As a medium, television can only engage two senses, sight and sound, but it will never be able to accurately present taste, which is perhaps why I doubt I’ll ever be able to explain the mass appeal of food shows.

But at least food has a visual element. I could see how unappetizing Betty’s chunky soups were and I could tell when Ilan burnt a whole pan of bacon. Perhaps that’s why it seems like director Tom Tykwer took such a drastic step with “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” a movie entirely based on its protagonist’s extraordinary sense of smell. Based on a novel by Patrick Suskind, the story was once so widely regarded as unfilmable that Suskind co-wrote 1997’s “Rossini” about his personal experience with novel “Das Parfum.” But Tykwer, the man behind modern masterpiece “Run Lola Run,” is more than skilled enough to handle the difficult narrative. If it were possible to visually present a stench, Tykwer succeed with his depiction of eighteenth century Paris. The entire city (and even its residents) appears to be permanently covered with a thin layer of grime and filth, which emits a foul stench that can be detected in my newly built movie theater.

It’s not difficult to imagine the putrid odors as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) begins his cursed life surrounded by the worst offenders. Born and abandoned in a fish market, Jean-Baptiste grew up in an orphanage equally inhabited by street urchins, rats and maggots, before being sold to a tannery. But it is on a delivery run that Jean-Baptiste is first able to appreciate his gift, which takes the form of a beautiful street vendor selling plums (Karoline Herfurth). Committed to capturing the scent, he follows her through the streets until he is finally within inches of her, drinking in all of her beauty, which ultimately includes taking her life. What follows is perhaps the most graphic no-sex sex scene ever on film, as Jean-Baptiste rapes her naked flesh with his nose, trying to forever capture her alluring scent.

If any complaint can be lobbied against Tykwer’s “Lola,” it’s that the narrative often takes a backseat to the film’s frenzied style and time-play. In the subsequent years, its clear Tykwer has calmed his style, incorporating the best elements of “Lola” into the stronger story of “Perfume.” Out on another delivery sidetrip, Jean-Baptiste perfume master Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), whose illustrious career has long since faded. Keen to discover the formula of his rival’s recent creation, Baldini begrudgingly allows Jean-Baptiste access to his storeroom of scents, allowing the amateur to explore his desired “utopia of unexplored smells.” Roughly grabbing bottles and haphazardly splashing them into a beaker, Jean-Baptiste not only frenetically recreates the heralded perfume, but continues adding ingredients to further improve its scent. In exchange for dozens of new scents, Baldini promises to teach his new apprentice to bottle every scent imaginable.

What Baldini doesn’t expect is Jean-Baptiste’s desire to capture EVERY possible scent. After failing to distill glass, stone and Baldini’s cat, Jean-Baptiste departs for legendary French town Grasse, where he will try a new technique to capture his desired smells. Having already accidentally murdered the plum girl in an attempt to get her scent (and having read the subtitle of the film), it’s apparent that Jean-Baptiste is at least temporarily through with mundane items like glass and copper, which may partly be attributed to Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the intoxicating daughter of a local aristocrat (Alan Rickman).

Unlike other cinematic serial killers like Hannibal Lector — who seriously talked too much to be genuinely scary — Jean-Baptiste gives virtually nothing away. He’s neither a likeable character nor even an interesting one, but he remains mesmerizing simply because he’s impossible to understand. Whishaw deserves tremendous recognition simply because he was given very little dialogue to hide behind and very little external emotion to convey. His character is so minimal that Tykwer had no choice but to add a narrator (John Hurt), simply to keep the audience following the story. Through much of the movie, Jean-Baptiste remains stoic and unfeeling, even as he scrapes animal fat off a victim’s naked body. During his apprenticeship with Baldini, the master told him that every successful perfume is composed of 12 different scents, each adding a new layer to the final product, although the addition of the perfect thirteenth scent can cause the perfume to transcend everything that’s come before. In his ideal plan, the essence of Laura is to be that final scent, with 12 additional girls serving as the starting base.

Call it the anti-Shaymalan, but it’s always refreshing to see a movie unafraid of its dark ending, which in this case, is actually the beginning. The film opens with the sentencing of Jean-Baptiste for murdering the girls of Grasse, and even though the film initially sympathizes with the pathetic Jean-Baptiste, it’s not secret that he will eventually go on a killing spree. This is far from the traditional thriller, with so many predictable twists and turns that watching the movie is akin to solving the murder on an episode of “Murder She Wrote.” Instead, the film is allowed to organically unfold, keeping the perfect subtle pace until the pre-known conclusion finally reappears. It may not make for a very suspenseful movie, but it certainly makes for a satisfying one.

At 147 minutes, it’s a little redundant to say that “Perfume” is a little on the long side. But unlike other recent lengthy movies (cough…“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”…cough, cough), “Perfume” never actually feels long. It’s slow and subtle, but it also never drags. The story is detailed, the direction is tight and the film is simply perfect.

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