Few movies can be described as so odd that it takes a while to figure out your reaction. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is such a film. Adapted from Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel Perfume, this dark movie lacks major star power in the key role, but director Tom Tykwer does a good job of creating a tale that's unpredictable, oddly romantic and captivating from the moment it starts.
The movie opens as an 18th Century poverty-stricken Parisian fishseller squats at her stand and births her newborn baby. Like the siblings before him, the little boy falls among the fish guts and maggots before being picked up as garbage. His hearty squeal saves him from the rubbish bin.
That's the way Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) enters the world. His mother goes to the gallows; he ends up in an orphanage, abused and mistreated for years. An odd child who doesn’t speak, Grenouille is eventually sent to work in a tannery where he's practically a slave. One day he's had enough and runs away.
What draws Grenouille into the city of Paris is his nose. He possesses an incredible ability to smell scents, and it beguiles him. The job he finds involves making deliveries to the business of Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a master perfumer who hires Grenouille once the lad convinces him that he wants to learn the perfume trade. Baldini watches his protégé and nurtures his natural olfactory proficiency to mix oils, herbs and other ingredients, turning them into wonderful fragrances.
Even before finding a place at Baldini’s, Grenouille's interest in smells was elevated when he was drawn to a beautiful girl (Karoline Herfuth) in the streets by her scent. He followed her -- and eventually killed her to discover the origin of her arousing smell, which he felt had something to do with her skin.
After he and Baldini get into a tiff, Grenouille heads for the perfume capital of the world, the Provence town of Grasse. With his stolen a case of miniature bottles from Baldini's, he's determined to find the precise ingredients to make the most fragrant smell in the world. As a number of young women disappear and are later found murdered and often skinned, Grenouille’s bottles get filled.
"He's an artist in the pursuit of beauty, and his victims are rather sculptural parts of an object that he's creating and considers to be for the greater good," explained Tykwer about the character of Grenouille.
When he meets Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the beautiful daughter of townsman Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), things appear to be looking up for Grenouille. While it seems like he might have his first real relationship with a young woman, Laura's father has an uncomfortable feeling about the odd young man. He and Laura relocate to a monastery on an island in the Mediterranean. But as a scent can drift for miles, so too can those in pursuit of it.
Eventually Grenouille is captured for his grisly crimes and sentenced to hang. Yet even though he never speaks, his hanging turns into a truly unique event. Without giving away the ending, whether it works for you or not, one has to admit it's certainly one of the most imaginative and somewhat stirring endings yet seen in a film.
"The material is dark but very romantic in a strange way, "said Tykwer, "and I always wanted to keep that romantic, passionate and desiring mode of the composition alive. The more we can make it part of the experience, the more intriguing and at the same time confusing and fascinating it is because we understand the passion of the story."
Ben Whishaw, discovered by Tykwer on the London stage, was certainly brave to take on a role that features him as grungy-looking misfit with little dialogue. But his solid performance will certainly elevate the relatively unknown actor to many future roles.
"It was thrilling to find someone extremely rare who was a mix of dangerous and fascinating, dark and innocent and all these strange ambivalences he had to bring to the role," said Tykwer.
Hoffman's role is not extensive and kind of quirky, the reason Tykwer knew he wanted him for the role. "Dustin has a history, gravitas and a funny bone and brings something with it that gives his character substance," he said. "He's an important part of the film, the teacher of the protagonist. He's the only one that gives Grenouille an opportunity to relate to someone and to have an actual dialogue with someone, and that's important."
It's not surprising that the book was translated into 45 languages, sold 15 million copies worldwide and drew interest from many of Hollywood's top filmmakers. Tykwer, cinematographer Frank Griebe, production designer Uli Hanisch and costumer Pierre-Yves Gayraud have made an impressive transfer of the book to the screen. Perfume is a strange but beguiling movie that, like an intoxicating scent, stirs the imagination.
(Released by DreamWorks Pictures and rated “R” for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.)
Review also posted on www.reviewexpress.com.