It’s been awhile since I’ve written a review as part of our “Movie Vault” category, but Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was such an unexpected, unusual experience that I felt obliged. I don’t recall hearing about this movie when it was released in the United States, which I suppose I can attribute to Perfume being a German film. Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Perfume is one of the most original stories I’ve seen in a long time. The film doesn’t try and cater to the audience’s expectation of what’s appropriate or what a protagonist should be, and the result is a film that, whether you love it or hate it, you will absolutely remember. And really, what fate is worse for a film than being forgettable? Keep reading for the full review; some spoilers ahead.
The real appeal of Perfume – to me, at least – is the fable-like story itself. The direction is fine, the acting is adequate (except for Alan Rickman who, as always, is superb), and the cinematography, while inconsistent (earlier scenes of the film seem much more polished and purposeful than many of the scenes presented later in the film), is solid. But the story itself is what I most remember from this movie, as Perfume brings to life a character whose motivations are understandable yet repugnant.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the foulest, most putrid, most horrible-smelling place on Earth, a disgusting fish market in the slums of France. Where he’s born isn’t the only thing unique about Grenouille, as he was also gifted (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a godly sense of smell. Not only can Grenouille recognize fleeting smells from miles away, he can break down any scent into its smallest and most delicate components. It makes sense, then, that Grenouille would have an affinity for pleasant smells, and that those pleasant smells must have seemed downright heavenly when you compare them to the stench is which Grenouille was born.
Grenouille – whose mother is hanged shortly after his birth – grows up in an abusive orphanage until he’s old enough to work as a slave of sorts for a leather maker. Grenouille makes a delivery to Paris, and he’s bombarded by gorgeous scents the likes of which he’s never experienced before. Now, Grenouille doesn’t talk much and is pretty much a total creep, so when he sneaks up on a young attractive girl and starts sniffing her, she’s understandably freaked out. In an attempt to keep her quiet, Grenouille kills the girl, and is devastated when her euphoric scent dissipates into the air forever. For the first time in his life, Grenouille has a purpose, but in actuality, it’s more of an obsession: he wants to learn how to preserve scent.
He soon finds himself employed by the Italian perfume artist Guiseppe Baldini, played by Dustin Hoffman. Unfortunately, there’s no semblance of Italian in Hoffman’s Baldini, and instead he comes across as, well, Dustin Hoffman. Anyway, Grenouille and Baldini strike a deal – in exchange for Grenouille’s teaching Baldini to make the best-smelling perfumes in the world, Baldini teaches Grenouille how to preserve scents. And it’s here that Perfume really picks up and becomes quite disturbing, as well as incredibly entertaining. The film does an excellent job of turning the scent of women into a metaphor for that woman’s soul, and this metaphor continues through the film’s unforgettable climax.
Keeping in mind that this isn’t the type of film we’re used to seeing, some of these scenes can come off as a bit silly. For example, Grenouille sniffing the air and following his nose like some sort of psychopathic bloodhound does indeed look ridiculous, but if you allow yourself to buy into the film’s central premise, it’s easily forgivable. What’s more unconventional, though, is that it’s nearly impossible to like – let alone relate to – Grenouille. He’s a selfish, unflinching murderer, and all his means are carried out for narcissistic ends. This isn’t a case of a charming killer like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Batemen; Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is so detached that he may as well be an alien.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Perfume isn’t worth watching. Quite the contrary – Perfume is an unconventional and clever way to tell an incredibly interesting story, and one that I know I won’t soon forget. It’s not a perfect film, and like I mentioned, some scenes may come off as a bit silly. But overall, I definitely recommend Perfume, as I’m sure you haven’t seen a tale of a freakish murderer presented with such depth.
4 out of 5 stars