A magical realist period thriller, with a classical orphan protagonist who’s closer to a modern, autistic serial killer; concerned with the human sense least communicable in cinema; adapted from an allegedly “unfilmable” book and one of the most expensive European films ever made, Perfume is a truly odd fish – silly, yet serious and gorgeous, and which for better or worse, lingers long in the memory as a madly audacious enterprise.
For ten years, German novelist Patrick Süskind resisted overtures to adapt his 1985 bestseller Das Parfum to the screen, irrespective of big names like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Ridley Scott’s association with the project, believing, as Kubrick reportedly did, that the fragrant narrative simply wouldn’t transfer to celluloid. Yet director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) has striven to prove him wrong.
Tykwer’s method is effective, pairing a lightly mocking commentary from John Hurt to lush visual imagery that tracks the olfactory enquiries of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) literally, from close-ups of rotting carcasses to extreme close-ups of his nostrils. And though the infinite variety and subtlety of odour remain elusive, Tykwer succeeds in conveying smell’s pungency and influence.
He accomplishes it instantly too, in the film’s evocation of 18th century Paris. Born into the city’s maggot-infested fish market, Grenouille is abandoned by his mother, who is arrested and hung for the crime after the baby wails at the malodorous assault on his senses. Deposited in a Dickensian orphanage, he is shunned by the other children, who attempt to smother him, seemingly aware of his strange, singular nature. Feral and gauche, to the extent, it will transpire, of sociopathy, Grenouille possesses no scent of his own but is blessed with a nose in a billion, capable of identifying any odour from a distance and any note in a perfume’s composition. Sold into a tannery, he becomes a mute, compliant slave until a trip to the city overwhelms him with sensual delight. Bewitched by the smell of a beautiful young plum seller (Karoline Herfurth), he tracks her through the Paris slums, but inadvertently kills her after a scuffle.
Overcome by her womanly scent, her death scarcely troubles him. But it transforms his passion into obsession. He persuades a washed-up Italian perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to tutor him in distillation, in exchange for his skills in identifying a perfume’s ingredients and concocting ever more beguiling fragrances. But Grenouille quickly becomes frustrated at his failure to preserve a perfect scent and departs for the picturesque town of Grasse, the Eden of perfume production.
Upon arrival in the town, he is captivated by the sight of the enchanting young Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), one of Grasse’s more illustrious citizens. Grenouille resolves to ‘capture’ Laura’s essence as the key note in his masterpiece, triggering an oddly chaste, asexual killing spree that sends him in pursuit of 13 women. A prostitute excepted, his victims are all virgins and destined to die sexually untouched. As the townspeople clamour to protect their daughters, led by the psychologically astute Richis, the film cranks up the cat and mouse investigation.
Perfume is opulent, sometimes ridiculously, as even the filth and disease look beautiful, with the costumes, settings and cinematography as ravishing as the amoral Grenouille refrains from being. Whishaw portrays him with a blank, sexless intensity, devoid of inner life, save for a rodent-like bearing and cunning. You can’t take your eyes of him and you actively will him to complete his grisly masterpiece. But he remains a literary conceit rather than a fleshed out character. As the corpses pile higher without any betrayal of guilt from the killer, he becomes increasingly less interesting personally, even as the investigation ratchets up the drama.
Hoffman’s distinctive enunciation strikes an odd note among so many English accents, but when he departs, so does much of the humour and the film feels unsure of its blacker comedy, especially during an ending that can only be described as orgiastic, yet which elicits only sniggers for its Eurotrash excess. Poor Rickman looks a little mortified in his final scenes, yet before these presents a touching concern for his daughter’s welfare, even if his murderer profiling seems anachronistically modern. Hurd-Wood is appropriately stunning.
Despite the two and a half hour duration, much feels excised from the novel. Yet despite its manifest flaws as both a film and an undertaking in expressing scent, Perfume remains a gripping, original thriller.
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