When you think of perfume, you very rarely think about movies. One reason for this is that the two give you such different sensations. Perfume is an olfactory sensation – a smell. Movies give you both audible and visual sensations – images and sounds. It is almost implausible to think that these two sensory experiences could ever cross paths. But don’t tell that to the makers of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, for they seem to think that even a film can omit a scent.
But before we go into whether Perfume comes out smelling like a rose or manure, it is necessary to understand what the film is all about. Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a boy born with a highly superior olfactory sense who becomes obsessed with preserving all of the world’s smells. There to help him (and profit from his amazingly keen sense of smell) is Italian perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), who shows Grenouille how to turn scent into oil and make fine perfumes.
And it is up to this point that the film feels almost normal, at its worst just a dark fairy tale. That is, until Grenouille’s obsession takes a strange turn. He becomes so infatuated with making the perfect perfume that he travels to Grasse, a city filled with immaculate scents and beautiful young women, whose smell is also quite attractive to Grenouille. Incapable of just loving women like a normal 18th century Frenchman, Grenouille sets forth on a path of murder, slaying a dozen or so beautiful women so that he can use their scents to possibly make a perfume that would bring a man to his knees.
And from there on out the film is just one twisted, disturbing and yet whimsical twist after another, leading right up to one of the most jaw-dropping endings that I have seen in a while. You won’t drop your jaw because you didn’t see it coming, but you will think to yourself, “I can’t believe they actually did that.” It is a visual that you just have to experience for yourself.
As for giving a film the sensation of smell, director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) uses vibrant colors beautifully to enhance those items that plague Grenouille’s keen nose. From the bright red hair of a beautiful maiden to the lush grass in a meadow, some colors stand out for a reason – they make your mind create the sensation of smell out of sheer memory. It creates a third method of enjoyment right next to an intriguing story and a visual feast.
The performance of 26-year-old Brit Ben Whishaw (Layer Cake) is also a key to the film’s success. Whishaw has a deep, cold stare that speaks volumes for Grenouille, whose personality is less than appealing to the outside world. He also has the ability to use that coldness to make Grenouille one extremely creepy but lovable character, giving this twisted fairy tale its hero.
And while the hero does start killing people about halfway through the film, there is a certain lightheartedness to it. For some reason, we understand him, forgive him and then want him to win in the end. Perhaps it is great storytelling that allows us to disregard the moral implications of Grenouille’s killings, or perhaps it is just some subconscious human perversion. Either way, we keep watching right up until the end. And what do we get for our due diligence? A film that doesn’t necessarily smell perfect, but does smell interesting.
Release Date: December 27, 2006 (limited)
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