Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) / Fantasy-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images
Running Time: 147 min.

Cast: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt (narrator)
Director: Tom Tykwer

Screenplay: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer (based on the novel, "Das Parfum", by Patrick Suskind)
Review published December 24, 2006

Based on the 1985 historical novel by Patrick Suskind, Perfume has had quite a bit of history of its own in terms of its adaptation to the big screen.  Supposedly Stanley Kubrick originally wanted it before dismissing it as "unfilmable".  Various other directors have been interested and passed, including Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, and Milos Forman.  Fittingly enough, this German novel would eventually be bought and produced in Germany, with the premier German director attached, Tom Tykwer (Heaven, The Princess and the Warrior).  This "unflimable" film would not only made, but made lavishly -- it would be the most expensive German production to date.  It also would end up being a good film.

Like most adaptations, the film differs somewhat (most notably in an abbreviated storyline, as well as the main character not being loathsome and ugly), but the essential ingredients are still present.  It tells the life story of a young 18th Century Parisian named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw, Enduring Love), born with an extraordinary sense of smell, though in a bit of irony, he has no personal scent of his own.  In his youth, he ends up killing a woman to get her scent, but is frustrated that he cannot capture and keep the odor forever.  In order to learn more about the capturing of scents, he gets a job as an apprentice for a nearby perfume shop, where the owner, Giussepe Baldini (Hoffman, Meet the Fockers), but soon leaves when he finds that he cannot capture the scent of everything using traditional methods.  Grenouille leaves for Grasse, where he discovers a way to seeks a way to capture the essence of a woman after all, but doing so ends with the woman's death, and the locals are none too pleased about losing the lives of their virtuous daughters.

Needless to say, any film which features a serial killer as its main protagonist isn't going to be to every taste.  What's more, the film is artistically presented, with more than a few unsavory images (borderline necrophilia even), that will not meet well with less open-minded viewers.  If these things don't dissuade you, along with a good amount of nudity, the rest of the film should be fine to sit through.  Even those who normally eschew foreign films will find it palatable, as the film this German production is actually an English-language film, and it also has recognizable actors like Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman (Love Actually, Galaxy Quest) in sizable supporting roles.

To be honest, there actually is some merit to Kubrick's assertion that the book is unfilmable, as the story itself doesn't really lend well to the kinds of things film audiences would find easy to digest.  THe aforementioned murderous protagonist is already difficult enough to follow without knowing his thoughts, but a film about scents, perfumes and an incredible sense of smell is difficult to convey, especially in showing just how Grenouille is able to detect scents from long distances and be able to distinguish where they are coming from. 

The lion's share of the credit should rightfully go to Tom Tykwer, who not only directs in gorgeous fashion, he co-wrote the very ambitious screenplay adaptation and contributed to the gorgeous score, as he has done for all of his films.  His images are both beautiful and repugnant, often at the same time, showing a side of 18th Century Paris few wish to venture through, while also capturing the beauty that is Grasse and the lush scenery of the rolling hills and mountains of France (sumptuously filmed by longtime Tykwer collaborator, Frank Griebe).  Along with the impeccable costume work, make-up, art design, and visual effects, Perfume may not be able to capture the sensations of the smells, but it is very much a treat for the eyes and ears. 

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo