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DIRECTED BY: Tom Tykwer
FEATURING: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood
PLOT: An apprentice perfumer in pre-Revolutionary France sets out to make the perfect scent, a task that requires him to murder thirteen beautiful virgins.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although its choice of protagonist—an orphaned serial killer with a superhuman sense of smell—certainly proves that Perfume is out of the ordinary, it’s mostly just a period drama punctuated by bursts of black humor, with most of its weirdness concentrated in the orgiastic finale.
COMMENTS: Adapted from Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer feels like a lavish epic as it traverses 18th century France, stopping to sniff out every scent (good or bad) along the way. German director Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) shows us the urban squalor of Paris, the expansive majesty of the countryside, and the perfume mecca of Grasse through the eyes and nose of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), our amoral and barely verbal anti-hero.
With his unsurpassed olfactory prowess, Grenouille wonders at all the scents in the world, yet is perpetually enraged: he can’t capture them all, and he lacks a personal scent. As far as his nose is concerned, he’s a cipher, a nonentity. His response to these inner crises is to study the secret art of perfuming under the tutelage of the self-absorbed Baldini (Hoffman), then migrate to Grasse, where he hatches his elaborate, murderous master plan.
This plan forms the centerpiece of the film, as Grenouille kidnaps and kills Grasse’s young maidens one after another, distilling their scents through the technique of enfleurage. Perfume spares little sentiment for the victims, focusing instead on how their deaths contribute to Grenouille’s angelic-smelling magnum opus. The film even juxtaposes Grenouille’s reign of terror with the authorities’ botched investigation in a blackly comic montage, all the better to highlight its anti-hero’s messianic, above-the-law status.
Like any rogue with a rise-and-fall character arc, Grenouille eventually gets arrested and tortured. But after his solemn march to the town square for crucifixion, Perfume loses all resemblance to other crime thrillers past or present and begins to look like an excerpt from Ken Russell‘s richest, most elegant fantasies. I won’t give away the climactic twist, except to say that it indulges all of the film’s wildest, most spectacular urges. By the time a drop of perfume falls on a Paris street in the last shot, there’s little for the viewer to do but gape at Tykwer’s mad bravado.
The rest of Perfume isn’t quite so magnificently over-the-top, but Tykwer complements Grenouille’s obsessions by zeroing in on one sensuous piece of period detail after another, all in a futile but nonetheless impressive attempt to visually capture scent. And although Whishaw dominates much of the film, the supporting cast occasionally steals the show: Hoffman provides tragicomic relief as a desperate has-been; Rickman brings his laconic grace to the role of a Grasse nobleman and overprotective father; and John Hurt’s mordant narration frames the whole endeavor as a bleak fairy tale.
Perhaps the greatest irony about Perfume is that although it was a massive, expensive undertaking, it still feels cultish and off the beaten path. It’s so morbid, thorny, and perversely funny that it’s hard to believe it could ever have much mainstream appeal. But imagine sniffing the fumes that would rise if you blended a picaresque costume drama with a slasher movie, then heaped on a thick broth of style. That, more or less, is Perfume.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… a tale whose off-the-charts screwiness obscures virtually all shortcomings.”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness