Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer


Reviewed by: Chris

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer
"If aimed at adults, Perfume is in danger of being patronising, while, at the same time, its themes will be seen as too 'adult' for younger viewers."

Adapted from a 1985 modern classic, Perfume tells the story (or fable) of a child, born amongst the revolting stench of 18th century Paris fish markets, who grows up to have such an uncannily developed sense of smell that he can compound perfumes to control people's behaviour.

Long before pheromone and aromatherapy psychology was commonplace, our protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw) takes it to new levels, mostly evil. We follow him from his lower-than-lowly beginnings, into an orphanage, a tannery and finally to an apprenticeship with master perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). To the illiterate and gifted Jean-Baptiste, the world of smells is the language of the world. He wants to find and catalogue every one and learn how to save and reproduce them.

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Bent on his holy quest, minor details such as good and evil, life and death, are, well, minor details. Having learnt everything he can from Baldini, he proceeds to the hallowed city of Grasse - a sort of perfumers' Mecca - to discover more, treating himself to a period of meditation on the way, communing in the hills with his destiny and calling.

Inspired by the smell of beautiful women, though not in a sexual way, he wants to capture it, to distil the essence of essences that is the soul of all beings. A local prostitute is less than impressed with his "enflourage" method, which consists of coating her with animal fat and then scraping it off, and the diligent Jean-Baptiste elects for a more robust method of scientific enquiry faster than you can say "scratch and sniff."

Considered to be one of those unfilmable novels, Perfume could have been approached in a number of ways. The subtlety of French cinema, for instance, encouraging the viewer to grasp that which is often only hinted at, struck me as a possibility to allow us to conjure up a story, based on sensations that are olfactory rather than visual.

However, there are other methods of dealing with the unseen and unseeable, as the Harry Potter romps have demonstrated. Having been responsible for independent originals, such as Run Lola Run and Heaven, one might have expected a wacky, artistic approach from German director Tom Tykwer, but for this large-scale movie he seems to have shifted more towards the sensationalism of those Hollywood movies you love to hate. It is as if someone had warned him that, with a budget this size, it is safest to follow the dots in a filmmaking-by-numbers style of easy watching entertainment

The result is a colourful, noisy, overblown production that makes the story look more like Charles Dickens than Patrick Süskind. Urchins, boasting Cockney accents in gay Paree, seem particularly out of place, and a long and intrusive voice-over by John Hurt, however well done, reinforces the impression that quality actors and expensive sets are not sufficient on their own.

Hoffman, barely recognisable as the powdered Baldini, is most impressive, and there are some nice moments when Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a noblewoman with a particularly nice smell, brightens things up. Tykwer, whose direction has been pedestrian throughout, rescues the film in the last few moments with crowd shots that are reminiscent of the work of photographer Spencer Tunick, known for shooting mass public displays of nudity, only with added eroticism and choreography.

While visually impressive, even these scenes fail to convey the believability inherent in the original novel. Even the slightest hint of pubic foliage has amusingly been edited out, in the same way that naked dead ladies earlier in the film always died (thoughtfully) in such poses as to keep similarly offending areas out of view.

If aimed at adults, Perfume is in danger of being patronising, while, at the same time, its themes will be seen as too "adult" for younger viewers. Süskind, the author of the best seller, held out for a long time before agreeing to sell film rights. This reviewer wishes he had held out a little longer.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2006
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Capturing scents in 18th century France can be a deadly business.
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Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Tom Tykwer

Writer: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer, based on the novel by Patrick Süskind

Starring: Ben Wishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Simon Chandler, David Calder, Richard Felix, Birgit Minichmayr, Andres Herrera

Year: 2006

Runtime: 147 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany/France/Spain


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