Perfume: The Story of A Murderer (2006), or My Apologies To Tykwer

18 09 2009

In my strange and unconventional review of Run Lola Run, I not only said very little about the movie directly, but I also heartily mocked the renowned German director by giving him a delightfully harsh German accent in an imagined interview with him. Take a look at that here, and don’t be alarmed by the weirdness; that’s just the tip of the massive iceberg on top of the colossal turtle that stirs the seas of my mind with its movements. Regardless, I was a bit harsh with Tykwer’s constant game of artistic charades, as well as his constant reassessment of the accessibility of his films. Well, I still feel that he changes his mind a bit often about what he’s trying to say, as well as to whom he’s saying it to, but after watching Perfume, or for fans of mouthful titles, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I will say that his style is as sharp as ever, and it makes for an entertaining, if not slightly vapid, experience.

It’s a 17th century historical thriller set in France. As a mere child, little Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is abandoned in the streets, and given to an orphanage, where life is hard for him. This act of abandonment scars young Grenouille, and he matures into a quiet, nearly emotionless young man. But while he is crippled socially, it turns out that his sense of smell is extraordinary. His super sense is something he can’t help but use often, and it is this heightened ability that leads him down the path of obsession. He finds work at a tanner’s, and while making a delivery in Paris, he discovers a whole new world of scents and odors. He smells everybody and everything, including a young woman selling plums. He startles her, as would anyone getting too close to smell me, and he accidentally suffocates her while trying to keep her quiet! Oh no! Well, once she’s dead, he realizes that all bets are off, so he takes the plum girl’s clothes off and smells her. This gets him all kinds of crazy ideas about the nature of permanence and the desire to keep the smell of a woman with him forever. In this wild quest he befriends an Italian perfume master and travels all the way to the capital of aroma, Grasse, to find a way to keep the scent alive. And he indeed does discover the secret, but it might just cost the lives of a number of young women. A price Grenouille seems more and more willing to pay…

It’s darkly comic, in a way, this obsession over scents. It’s like a man obsessed with taste eating people for the sensation their flesh leaves on his tongue. Don’t get me wrong; the film takes itself fairly seriously, but there’s a certain macabre humor to the whole idea that I pick up on faintly. It’s just such an absurdity that I can’t help but laugh in the face of all this death. And there is a lot of death. This should be called Perfume: The Story of a Mass-Murderer, because this movie is rife with all kinds of strange and horrible deaths. It’s likely Tykwer’s darkest film to date, and it’s a welcome change of pace from his most recent tepid affair, The International.

Where it succeeds is the sensualization of the senses. This is a highly erotic film, in all aspects. Grenouille is fixated with the scent of a woman, but he’s really obsessed with her sexuality, and his budding nubile body and his remarkably sharp mind are reacting to the stimulus of his most cultivated sense. So this film is stacked with images of our main character interacting with women in a halting, unnatural way. And it might not be that he’s uncomfortable with them, but rather that he’s not attracted to them on the same wavelength that most people are, and he doesn’t know how to find common ground with them. It is a film very easy on the eyes, drowning in heady 18th century sexuality. Soft skin, delicate tresses and tight corsets adorn the ladies, and stately suits garnished with withering stares adorn the men, with strange little Grenouille in the middle.

The film owes a great bit of debt to the cast, who make this odd, dream-like picture come to life. Grenouille is played by Ben Whishaw, famous for his recent portrayal of Hamlet, and he has that dangerous mix of handsome and psychotic. He really is of two worlds; I could see this man going down the catwalk AND cleaning the barnacles off of ships. He’s a chameleon, and in a European period piece about luring women to their doom, that’s one of the best assets you could possibly have. Alan Rickman, the single most soothing man in the entire world (they bottle his voice and sell it as an alternative to pain medication) is a concerned father, Antoine Richis, who has his watchful gaze on Grenouille. He’s charming, dependable, and a snappy dresser to boot. Someone who isn’t dependable here is Dustin Hoffman, who plays Giuseppe Baldini, the perfume manufacturer in Paris. He is a schmuck here, with no business in this type of movie. His character disappoints me, because it’s not really a character at all, but Hoffman mugging for the camera. It’s bothersome and distracting to watch his performance, and I hope to not see him so mismatched with a role like this again.

All in all, though, pretty good. A fascinating look into the perversion of the senses and the distillation of infatuation, Perfume is a well choreographed piece of dramatic psychological flair. Putting the camera to work for him, Tykwer examines the inner sexual demons of a repressed society and the mental repercussions of having an overwhelming sense. It’s a concept that is good for a rental, but not something worth watching in regular intervals, as there’s nothing really behind it to prop it up. The cast propels a few of the stronger scenes, and there are moments when I myself become enthralled, a slave to the idea of a “perfect scent”, particularly the scenes involving the methodical process Grenouille involved in all this madness (him alone with Rachel Hurd-Wood is heart-pounding). Check it out if you’re not easily grossed and have a bit of historical reference. With a strong cast, an engrossing premise, and an ending that has to be seen to be believed (I mean it! It’s fucking crazy!), I enjoyed it, and you might too. I give Perfume 7 1/2 sexy scents out of 10! No hard feelings now, eh Tykwer?

Tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll be doing! If I can’t think of anything, I guess I’ll just die here of indecision and dehydration! Until then!

PSA: Man On Fire (2004), or Creasy Is My Least Favorite Last Name On Earth

18 09 2009

After having seen Man on Fire once before, I found it to be a movie I didn’t think about very much.  After seeing it once again today, I wouldn’t say Tony Scott is the less talented Scott brother, but what he lacks (for the most part) is patience; in a formula, in a story, in a scene. Everything is often rushed and confused in a Tony Scott film, as if the earth itself downed an unhealthy dose of PCP and things are starting to get out of hand. Man on Fire is the perfect example of Scott’s impatience with the pace of life and the organic movement of a scene. It fidgets, twists, and sputters like an addict and seems to get bored with the idea of entertaining us very quickly. But there’s a lot more to this twitchy little feature than meets the eye, and that’s where it earns some points from me.

The film concerns the nefarious practice of kidnapping in Mexico. After a number of high-profile incidents, a Mexican businessman named Ramos hires a bodyguard to protect his lonely daughter. He finds the best of the best in former CIA agent John Creasy. He’s the best security guard money can buy, but he’s none too personable after all the death he’s seen in his life. He’s built a wall around himself, making sure nobody gets too close to him and his gruesome problems. But he never expected the girl he protected to get to him like she did. Pita, Ramos’s daughter, is sweet, caring, and in need of guidance and support, things which Creasy didn’t know he could give to anyone after all the things he’s seen and done. They bond after Pita finally breaks him down, and a sweet, touching relationship is born. But it is to be short-lived, because after a session of piano practice one day, a vicious kidnapping ring shows up and steals her away from Creasy, shooting him in the process. When Creasy wakes up in the hospital, and he hears that she has been taken, he rushes out of the hospital prematurely and begins to mount an assault on these evil forces at work, which include not only violent gangs, but corrupt police officers. It will take all of Creasy’s resources and cunning he honed in the CIA to deal with this. Can he track down little Pita before time runs out?

It’s a good concept, loosely based on both the A.J. Quinnell novel of the same name and the 1987 film starring Joe Pesci and Scott Glen. The character of John “my-last-name-sounds-like-razor-blades-on-a-chalk-board” Creasy is essentially the same throughout, a disillusioned badass who finds his only reason for living and then watches it being stolen away from him, but that idea especially clicks with Washington heading up the character. An important thing to note is that Man on Fire feels genuine, genuine in its actions and genuine in its purpose, and that’s something that drew me to see it in the first place. The addition of Mexico City and bringing up the real kidnapping dilemma in that country was a brave and important gesture, and if one more person can be made aware of the frightening state of affairs in Mexican organized crime, then it is worth every penny to watch this film.

The cast is good. Denzel Washington inhabits a broken-hearted alcoholic on the verge with John “Rhymes with greasy” Creasy, a bodyguard with a terrible last name but a heart of gold. The relationship between he and Dakota Fanning cannot be praised enough. It’s a very subtle and subdued thing at first, because he intensely dislikes her. It’s a very slow build between them, but when it finally reaches a peak and he warms up to her, it is so worth it. And it’s equally as heartbreaking when she is taken away. Dakota Fanning is cute as Pita, the smart, lonely daughter of the Mexican businessman (she didn’t get a lot of Ramos genes in her, considering Dakota Fanning is super-white) and I really liked the rapport between her and Washington, but I can’t say she didn’t annoy me at first as well. I was right there with Creasy when I first saw her; I didn’t really want to deal with her precociousness and her screaming that god-awful last name of his all the time. CREASY! CREASY!! CREASY!!! The supporting cast is excellent, with a few key scenes by the King of the Undead, Marc Anthony. I wish Anthony had gained some weight for this role, or any role. He looks uncomfortably skinny, and in the last scene he was in I got the vague sense that he was a zombie thirsting for the brains of the living.

But we all know why we rented this movie; that’s right, Christopher Walken! The craziest son of a bitch to ever grace the silver screen, Walken dazzles as he tries to return to serious acting but comes up riding the crazy train a little again. Now, as far as nuts goes, he was about a 9 or 10 as I showed you in my Gigli review. Here he’s only a two, but that’s amazing in itself. He melds his eccentricities into a typical support character as Rayburn, Creasy’s former CIA buddy. It gives him a lot of leverage to do what it is he does best; play Walken playing a character playing Walken. My favorite cheesy line in the movie is from him, when he stretches the limits of the super-serious demeanor of the film and speaks that eternal badass-confirming chestnut, “A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” Yikes! He must have thought he was in a Steven Seagal movie on that one! Note that the only other artform he can think of besides death is food. HUH? Plumbers and IT specialists around the world weep as Walken snubs their skills for the prowess of the chefs at Marie Calendars!

The only part of Man on Fire that I really dislike is the direction. Tony Scott has a way of being a very insistent director, a show-off with his incessant bells and whistles, his filters and his film speeds. He has to remind us of his technical prowess by constantly dumping a chemically-altered tone to the film and arbitrarily changing the speed and tempo. It’s distracting and aesthetically irrelevant to the plot or the character development, and that can be incredibly irksome to anyone who watches film and contemplates the subtext of shots and film accoutrements. Now, as for the handling of the material, I again have no problem. Scott is very tasteful and his characters are endearing even as they act in desperation. The scene where Creasy kills the guy by his car is my favorite; it’s intense but bittersweet, and that’s the core of this movie for me. Powerful scenes, like the one where Creasy wakes up and discovers that Pita has been taken, are the emotional milestones of this film, and will stay with me long after the acid-trip Mexican scenery fades from my mind.

Man on Fire is a movie that knows how to be beautiful and violent, and somewhere in that loaded statement is a danger of being overly self-aware. Scott skirts this danger back and forth with his able cast, and while he doesn’t come out of it completely clean, I still respect the movie and what it was trying to do. It’s not perfect, by any means, but with powerful leads, a modestly strong script, and the man who I love and hate with equal measure, Tony Scott, at the helm, it makes for a compelling international thriller with a tender heart lost somewhere in Mexico City. I give Man on Fire 7 lip-snarling last names out of 10. CREASY!!!!

Stay with me, everyone! I’m going into overtime today with my review of Perfume coming up soon!