Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Germany/France/Spain, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is beautiful in its ugliness. Among other things, it features gorgeously composed scenes of maggots, animal entrails, and human corpses. And, in direct contrast to Marie Antoinette, it portrays 18th century France is a grimy, dirty place, regardless of whether the location is Paris or Grasse. Certainly, Tom Tykwer's latest film is audacious, but audaciousness does not necessarily equate to worthwhile cinema. There's a mesmerizing appeal to the director's in-your-face style, even if the images he displays are often repugnant. Unfortunately, Tykwer is working with a flawed screenplay and even the most arresting visuals cannot compensate for the movie's schizophrenic story.

Perfume is the tale of the fictitious Jean-Baptiste Genouille (Ben Wishaw), a perfume maker who lives during the mid-1700s in France. Blessed with an acute, almost superhuman sense of smell, he begins his career by developing some of the most sought after perfumes while working as the apprentice to a Parisian salesman, Guiseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). When his ultimate desire, to distill the essence of the human odor, can not be achieved under Baldini, he quits Paris for Grasse, where he discovers the solution to his dilemma: murder. He finds that by killing young girls, slathering them in animal fat, allowing them to stew briefly while tightly wrapped, then removing the fat, he can capture the human essence. For his ultimate perfume, he needs thirteen such components, which means thirteen deaths. The last of these is intended to be Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the most beautiful girl in Grasse and the daughter of the powerful and influential Richis (Alan Rickman).

For about two-thirds of its lengthy running time (nearly 2 1/2 hours), Perfume is an offbeat period piece/character study, giving viewers insight into the workings of the demented mind of a serial killer. British actor Ben Wishaw, in his first major international role, is effective drawing us into the murderer's sphere, encouraging understanding (although not sympathy). Jean-Baptiste is creepy and uncharismatic, and Wishaw plays him as both. His predatory nature is non-sexual. Even though all his victims are found nude, they remain virgins (except those who would not ordinarily be, such as a prostitute). The metaphor for sex is the theft of the girls' essences. Jean-Baptiste's crimes are rape and murder, although his raping occurs not through penetration but through distillation.

However, about 110 minutes into the movie, everything changes and Perfume turns into an unsubtle Jesus allegory. All the elements are in place: the cross, the resurrection, the outpouring of love, and the ascension. The shift in tone is so extreme and unexpected that it creates a disconnect with what precedes it. Although one would never call Perfume's first two-thirds subtle, they are restrained compared to what Tykwer does during the third act.

Perfume features two high-profile actors. The first, Dustin Hoffman, is out-of-place. Hoffman is the consummate professional, and gives it a game try, but he is miscast as Baldini and the performance rarely rings true. Alan Rickman, on the other hand, is exceptional. Unfortunately, his role lacks prominence. The balance of the supporting roles are filled by British character actors. (Tykwer's decision to shoot this in English for international marketing reasons limits his casting choices.)

Tykwer's career has been marked by daring choices, some of which work better than others. Run Lola Run was an infusion of pure energy. The Princess and the Warrior was a powerful, offbeat fable. Now Perfume takes Tykwer in a darker direction. Although the film's most fascinating element - the quest for perfection by a sociopath who uses murder as a regrettable tool - is abandoned during the final act, it is an absorbing albeit unsettling topic for a motion picture to attack. Tykwer's approach invigorates the material, providing a provocative collage of images that will have some viewers turning away and others wishing they had deferred their most recent meal. Deeply flawed though it may be, Perfume is a challenging motion picture, and one whose impressions are not easily shaken.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Germany/France/Spain, 2006)

Run Time: 2:27
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1