Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) – Tom Tykwer

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It’s a strange coincidence that I watched this film the same day that this article on olfactory art was posted in the Daily Beast!  Check it out – creepy and interesting (just like Perfume…).

Ben Whishaw is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man whose superior sense of smell inspires him to seek a method to preserve every scent.  His passion for perfume takes a dark turn when he begins to pursue in particular the scents of beautiful young women.

We begin in medias res, with Grenouille in chains, being sentenced to death in front of a crowd of furious people.  The film then takes us back to the beginning of Grenouille’s life, his discovery of his incredible sense of smell, and his teenage years working as a tanner’s apprentice.  Even before we know why Grenouille will be sentenced to a violent death, there is something disquieting about him, something that makes us distrust him.  Whishaw, with whom I became familiar in the very different film Bright Star, is here taciturn, filthy, and vaguely simian in his movements.  Grenouille creates his perfumes with the meticulousness of an artist, but pursues scents with the unthinking instincts of a beast.  Death follows him in his wake, whether he is causing it accidentally or on purpose.

Cinematographically, the film is impressive.  It is an interesting project, to use a visual medium to tell a story that hinges on olfactory experiences, and the result is a visually rich and creative film.  Tykwer makes great use of swift, zooming shots – either zooming across great areas to demonstrate the breadth of Grenouille’s sense of smell, or into smaller, detailed spaces to illustrate his precision.  The film also often employs a series of short, close shots to render Grenouille’s ability to smell a subject: a woman’s shoulder, her hair, her lips.  Through these shots, we are able to see how refined his sense is, as well as the unsettling and almost violating intimacy he is able to reach with it.

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The film makes a few off-putting choices in the presentation of the narrative itself, especially towards the beginning.  The hokey British narrator describes the events of the plot in a theatrically hushed tone, giving the effect of telling a story to small children.  Another misstep is the casting of Dustin Hoffman as Giuseppe Baldini, the Italian perfume-maker who teaches Grenouille the basics of perfume.  Hoffman looks out of place in his make-up and powdered wig, and his Italian accent does not read.  Thankfully, he is featured only briefly – and Alan Rickman’s subsequent performance as Antoine Richis, the father of Grenouille’s last victim, is more believable, bringing us back into the world of the story.

Once you are able to get past these strange distractions (and once you accept that the majority of the film will feature Whishaw wandering around with his eyes closed, sniffing loudly), Perfume actually has something very interesting to say about the power of beauty and pleasure.  As the narrator describes it, it is “a power stronger than the power of money or terror or death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind.”  And in the end it is this power that proves the most deadly, and what starts off as Grenouille’s bizarre fetish ultimately provides him with incredible and terrifying power.

This film is perhaps a more successful aesthetic experiment than anything else.  The narrative is a little absurd at times, but overall there is a certain allure to the film, a tantalizing juxtaposition (and perhaps combination) of the beautiful and the gruesome.