REVIEW: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer [2006]

“The sweet smell of innocence”

Director Tom Tykwer has created a visually lush, unique piece of cinema again. From the highly original Lola rennt, to the visualization of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Heaven (the first part to a planned trilogy, the second of which has been made by another director), Tykwer’s talents continue to make beautiful films built around emotion and characters. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is adapted from the novel of same name and, while I have not read the book, I can guess that the film version is pretty spot-on. With its narration and long silent pauses to help the audience experience the amazing gift our lead has, this story is read onscreen through its imagery. As the camera pans lovingly over each object of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s affection, one can almost smell the beauty as all other senses help to create a manifestation of the one we can’t use. If ever a movie needed Smell-O-Vision, it would be this.

We are introduced to a young man whose very life was a gift from God. He was born on bad terms and literally steals his breath from the air, causing the beginning to his involuntary vacuum of life around him. It seems that everyone who touches or educates him finds an end to life once his work is done. Jean-Baptiste, with a sense of smell as acute as any could be, in fact has no smell of his own. His ability turns him into a leech of sorts, desperately needing to bottle the smells of others so as to never lose their essence, their soul. All those around him can’t appreciate the unique odor they emit like he does. Only he can understand and see into another’s soul, thus beginning his quest, and duty, to find a way to preserve that beauty.

Expect big things in the future from virtual newcomer Ben Whishaw. The way he envelops the character of Grenouille is total. He goes through the entire film uttering very few words, yet his expressions tell the story so well that you could understand it with all sound turned off. In each scene of him approaching his first love, a plum girl on the streets, (the radiant Karoline Herfurth), Whishaw is completely entranced by her odor. He approaches her with eyes closed and allows his nose to follow each contour of her body from a distance. The transfixion is powerful to watch as he discovers the most beautiful creature he has ever beheld; the consequences of his immursion, on the other hand, are devastating. Whishaw never plays the role with any malice or insanity. Grenouille is a simple man who has never been told the difference between right and wrong. He is a victim of circumstance as well as an otherworldly ability, which comes with an overwhelming sense of superiority and purpose, whether true or misguided. His is a tragic character, which never sees the error in his ways, and Whishaw never loses sight of that one attribute, letting viewers pity him at the same time as they revile what he is doing.

Perfume is a sprawling tale spanning the years of Grenouille’s life and on his journey to learn the craft of perfuming, he meets many interesting and integral people. Dustin Hoffman plays Master Baldini, the man who first lets Jean-Baptiste in on the secrets of scent, nicely and with a sense of integrity. An actor who has the tendency of going too big in some roles, Hoffman reins himself in and plays the part to perfection. He is a famous perfumer whose days of fame are long behind him. Seeing the gift his protégé has reinvigorates his love for the craft and by teaching the boy, he revisits his past glory. Also effective in the film are Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood. Rickman plays his character with intelligence and compassion. While all those around him see an easy way out for capturing a serial killer, only he refuses to be duped. As for Hurd-Wood, she is everything needed to make Jean-Baptiste’s mission believable. This young girl has an angelic beauty that would catch anyone’s eye, but it is her innocence that truly captures the meaning of the film.

Tykwer gives us a tale of finding beauty in the world and wanting to never let it go. There is a power to innocence that will cause adults to smile at the mistakes made by children along the path of their childhood. Humanity can be stopped in its tracks by it, uniting everyone into a sense of love for that which has not yet been tainted by the world. It does not matter how Grenouille was able to achieve the creation of his masterpiece of perfume, it only matters what that process resulted in. It’s odor brought the Garden of Eden back to earth for a fleeting moment. It allowed all in its’ path to have a clean slate and love each other, if only for a moment. Innocence washed all their sins away and it could not have happened without the determination of this young perfumer. With dark subject matter, the film truly succeeds with its underlying meanings. There are many allusions to religion throughout the fantasy and stories of a savior/messiah figure that can be taken many ways. Whether one finishes upon liking Perfume or not, it at least makes you ask questions and never manipulates you on the way. It also contains one of the best montage sequences I have ever experienced. As the murders are committed and spliced together with the meetings of the court on what to do, there is a gorgeous, operatic score driving us through. The passage culminates into one of religion’s greatest feats, coincidence looked upon as divine intervention. Whether Grenouille went along with God’s acceptance or not, he truly does succeed on his mission.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Ben Whishaw and Rachel Hurd-Wood in Tom Tykwer drama thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
[2] Ben Whishaw star as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille with Dustin Hoffman star as Giuseppe Baldini in drama thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)


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