DreamWorks // 2006 // 147 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // July 24th, 2007
"The soul of beings are their scent."
There have been many films recently that have tried to convince us to side with the murderers, monsters, and psychopaths. Few have done so in as convincing a way as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the dazzling, sensual, and disturbing film from German wunderkind Tom Tykwer. It's a film that delights, shocks, entertains, and provokes deep personal reflection.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, Layer Cake) is born in a dirty, ugly corner of Paris in the mid 1700s. Lucky to survive and taken in at a local orphanage, Grenouille drifts through life invisible and silent, and none of the people around him realize that he has a remarkable skill. He has a near-supernatural sense of smell, a talent that could turn him into the best perfumer in the world. After a difficult childhood, he finds haven under the wing of Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, Stranger than Fiction), an ageing but talented perfumer who teaches him how to capture essences in exchange for brilliant new recipes. Something happens to Grenouille when he moves into Paris, though, and discovers the scent of a beautiful girl. He becomes obsessed with finding a way to capture the scent of a beautiful woman, no matter what it takes to do so. Gradually, he becomes a systematic killer, working diligently on creating his masterpiece. The last piece of that puzzle is the daughter of a local magistrate (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) named Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood, Peter Pan), a girl of unmatched beauty. Grenouille must get her to complete his perfume.
There is something undeniably powerful about the scent of smell. No other sense can take us back to another time and place quite so vividly, and no other scent is quite as mysterious. Perhaps the power of scent comes from the fact that it's the only sense that's sent to the brain directly without being processed first. Either way, most of us have scents that touch us personally, whether it's the smell of a childhood food or the scent a first lover wore. As such, the making of perfume has always been a mysterious vocation, one surrounded by the erotic and the exotic. For most of us, perfume just smells nice, and has just a little power over us when used sparingly. For a perfumer, though, each perfume is a careful and brilliant blend of twelve scents, placed together into chords. It is an exclusive, arcane art that few practise, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer gives us a peek into that world.
Of course, there's a serious problem with a film about smell. Film is a visual and aural medium, so director Tykwer needs to translate the world of smell into vision and sound. He does so miraculously. Indeed, you can almost think of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer as a visual perfume, carefully constructed in the same way that a perfumer would combine scents. Initially, we are struck by the visual world that has been created for this film. The Paris created here is dingy and dirty beyond belief, to the point that even the most hardened Dickens character would plead for a bath. Initially, it's hard to imagine anything sensual or erotic in this world of dirt, mud, and grime. Tykwer uses a brilliant color pallette, in which warm colors often burst out, but cool colors sink into the murk and black. The camera moves skillfully, capturing scents and sights with a keen eye. Tykwer has developed quite a bit since Run Lola Run. This film has the same kinetic enthusiasm, but it is far more patient and refined. At any rate, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a film that draws us in and grips us by all our senses.
The middle chord here is the performances, which ask us to do the impossible. There isn't much to like about the quiet, savage Grenouille. Although he never seems malicious or evil, we cannot condone what he does, or ultimately even appreciate it in the way we are meant to. At the same time, there is something undeniably human and accessible about the character, and Ben Whishaw injects the role with so much sincerity, intensity and innocence that we can't help but feel for him -- despite the disgust we have with what he does. The cost of adapting a novel and creating such a rich, plausible character is the sacrifice of the lesser parts. In this case, although Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood all give fine performances, we simply don't get enough time with them to feel for them in the same way. Indeed, the middle of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is rushed, though enough time is taken to make sure that the film still makes sense for those who haven't read the book. The cast manages to keep us watching closely, though, even after we've adjusted to the brilliant visuals of the world. For a time, the film threatens to become a typical thriller, but it gets back on track eventually, and leads to a climax that's quickly becoming infamous.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a surprising mix of stories, which combines the fantastic nature of the hero with a realistic depiction of 18th Century France. It is part thriller, part drama and part horror, but never feels strained at the seams. It balances carefully between all three, gracefully leading us on an almost mundane and almost epic journey. Each viewer will come away with something completely different, and I expect that it will spawn many exciting conversations.
The real trick, though, is that Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is neither straightforward nor easy to digest. This is an ugly, uncomfortable, challenging film, and we are left with many questions and unsettling thoughts long after the credits begin to roll. This is the base chord of the film, and the scent that stays with us long after the film has ended. It's a film about both love and obsession, and where those two things intersect. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer might also be the ultimate outcast movie, as Grenouille suffers through the challenges of his life. If he is right about himself, he has no soul, which raises all kinds of issues. Can he be blamed for what he does? Is a certain level of cruelty acceptable when a person has true creative genius? How are we meant to understand the end? Like the best magic realism, Tykwer reaches deep into fantasy, magic, and wonder, and draws out the truly human. We are left contemplating our own lives, our own morals, and our own expectations of the world. We long to have a skill as keen as Grenouille, but wonder whether we would be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become great. The end result is a disturbing vision of what film can be, as well as a reminder that the best films are crafted, not produced. From the first whif that we get of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, it proves to be top quality.
The DVD has also been well produced. The video transfer shows the limitations of the format, as there is a bit of compression visible in the crowd scenes at the end. Still, it is a rich, beautiful transfer in the original ratio of 2.35:1, though I suspect it would look fantastic in high-def. The sound is more impressive, as a rich, deep sound stage is created around the viewer. The dialogue is always clear, the music is warm and immersing, and ambient noise helps pull us into 18th Century France. The real downfall of the disc is in the special features. All we really get is a quick featurette, which is not nearly enough. It's an entertainingly international production, as the German production team leads British performers in a film about France. I would love to see a special edition of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, loaded up with a commentary track and a more impressive lineup of special features. Tom Tykwer spent about five years working on this project, and his accomplishment is deserving of a much more respectful edition.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of the most tactile, sensual, disturbing, unsettling film that I've seen in a very long time. Not everyone will embrace its ambiguity and ideas, but adventurous viewers will love to get lost in this world of scent, beauty, and horror. Although I hope we don't have to wait another five years for Tykwer's next film, I have no doubt it will be worth the wait. This is a truly beautiful and enchanting film.
Although Grenouille is unquestionably guilty, I will let him suffer his natural fate.
Review content copyright © 2007 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Featurette
* Official Site