It says perhaps all you need to know about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that, within the first 20 minutes, its protagonist is abandoned at birth, orphaned, almost smothered in his crib, sold into child slavery, forced to work grueling 16-hour days, and regularly beaten, yet he generates no audience sympathy. Directed and co-written by the gifted German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven) and adapted from the bestselling German novel Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind, it’s a maddeningly wasteful film, squandering multiple opportunities to connect with the audience, underemploying a cast that’s capable of far more, and throwing away $65.8 million (an enormous budget for a European production) to achieve an overall effect that’s best described as perverse whimsy.
The script, such as it is, takes the form of a kinky fairy tale set in a violent, brutish world; imagine the Brothers Grimm rewritten by Charles Dickens as a letter to Penthouse Forum. Its protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is an orphan possessed of a sense of smell so keen that he can identify and locate the source of any aroma. British actor Ben Whishaw plays the adult Grenouille, a young man obsessed with scent, greedy to experience new, unfamiliar aromas, no matter their source or their quality — a fetid cesspool or a basket of fresh-picked plums, it’s all the same to him. The most exciting scent, though, is that of a woman’s flesh, but women are understandably unnerved when a strange man approaches and wordlessly begins sniffing them (too bad he’s not gay — he could just move to Chelsea and join a fetish club). Grenouille becomes obsessed with finding a way to capture and bottle a woman’s essence, a task that, as it turns out, is easiest to perform when the lady in question is not so much alive.
Undernourished but wiry, with features that are both handsome and somewhat rodenty (there’s a glimmer of a resemblance to serial killer Ted Bundy) Whishaw’s Grenouille is interesting in an abstract way, as a vivid portrait of a monomaniac doggedly pursuing his goal, but the character is so singularly focused and inexpressive that he’s little more than an animal. And the rest of the dramatis personae are merely stock figures — the pompous buffoon (Dustin Hoffman as perfumer Giuseppe Baldini), the overprotective father (Alan Rickman as Antoine Richis), the blithe maiden (Rachel Hurd-Wood as Laura Richis). Hoffman and Rickman are both far too talented to be wasting their time in such underwritten, thoroughly pointless roles and far too talented to be forgiven for not finding some way to raise them above their one-note conceptions.
Tykwer seems to have intended Perfume as something of an epic, with its focus on one man’s journey (I’d call it picaresque if he had any personality), expansive cinematography, and legions of extras, but the slim story is insufficient to support either the extravagance of the filmmaking or the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. And the plot repeatedly defies any logic — why, when the murders begin, does no one immediately suspect the eccentric new guy who lives and works on the same farm as the first victim? Every other man in the area is immediately suspect, yet no one questions Grenouille’s flagrantly suspicious activities until his boss gets all Gil Grissom and discovers glaring evidence of his crimes.
The film’s greatest (only?) asset is its visual style. The camera of cinematographer Frank Griebe (who has worked with Tykwer on all his films to date) is ingeniously and precisely observant, and like Grenouille, it doesn’t discriminate between the beautiful and the grotesque. It perceives color and detail with a sensitivity and delectation that parallels the way Grenouille detects the faintest aroma — it’s almost a kind of synesthesia. The magic-realist excess of the film’s visuals supports its sense of improbable possibilities, but as in a fairy tale, the characters have no depth or psychological complexity. They are straw men and women, with no existence beyond the needs of the plot (unless you count their presence in dozens of other stories and films), and none, unfortunately, more so than the film’s protagonist. Grenouille is cast as a tragic figure, a victim of his circumstances and his unique gift, but we don’t buy it. The character is never sympathetic enough for us to care about his plight and too opaque to be truly chilling, and his victims are no more characterized than the busty blondes in a slasher pic, so why not let ‘em die? By the halfway point of the film, my only desire was for the sweet surcease of the closing credits.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | January 9, 2007 | Comments ()