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!

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6 responses

19 09 2009
Jenni David

i like this layout…i love this review…i cant wait till tomorrow!!

19 09 2009
Liz Bear

Really enjoyed your review– I was just so enthralled by this movie, the story is so strange and the images are so beautiful. Wish you’d said something about the end SPOILER ALERT with the cannibalistic orgy. I didn’t know what to make of it– though ending the movie violently made sense. Maybe you’re right that the movie is more character driven than plot driven so there are no easy conclusions to take with us. But the movie seemed so serious, I wish I had been able to make heads or tails of the end.

19 09 2009
cinematronica

Thanks for the kind words, Liz! I try to save the spoilers or any talk of the end for this section, usually, so I’m glad you brought it up. It was a remarkable ending, to say the least. What a way to go, huh? At the last 15 minutes, it becomes quite the picaresque fantasy, with the indomitable power of “the scent”. It really couldn’t have ended any other way at that point; you either have him being executed, you have him escaping after the orgy and ruling the world in a bizarre alternate history with the power of his perfume, or you just go out with a bang like they chose to. If I ever need to kill myself, I’ll be sure to ask Grenouille for a couple dabs of the ol’ feminine musk.

23 09 2009
Jenni David

MEH I hate the ending…btw Liz…its a review…there are usually spoilers of some kind….BTW Eric, I LOVE spoilers!

23 09 2009
cinematronica

LOL I’ll keep that in mind! From now on, if there’s a contentious, weird, or otherwise interesting ending or SPOILER, I’ll start the first comment in the section and open up a dialog about it! Fair enough?

24 09 2009
Jenni David

loves it!

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