It’s been a staple of European film for many an era; the sensory cinematic experience. That is, a movie that isn’t a movie, what really is a motion picture, and one that takes most care to ensure you’re intoxicated by its visuals, aesthetics and overpowering mood and tone. Forget sharp dialogue and thick plotting, navigating through a crisp story, this isn’t the core of such pieces. Arriving almost at a halfway point between art house and international mainstream is Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, adaptation of the equally hypnotic novel of the same name.
An unwanted pregnancy to a wench mother in the squalor laden slum fish markets of 18th century Paris, young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has the cruelly ironic gift of a sense of smell superhuman, most unwelcome in the most ghastly stinking cesspool imaginable. Raised in a cutthroat orphanage, Jean-Baptiste (played by Ben Whishaw) grows up to become a tanner’s apprentice, a profession clearly wasted on him. His nose leads him to a risque encounter with an aromatically beautiful fruit seller, where the troubled protagonist is overcome by his desire to smell her. Things go awry in a suitably fatal manner, but it’s simply the start of his journey.
Fate leads him to a once legendary perfumer, Italian Giuesspe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and Jean-Baptiste’s intricate ability to detect and also create new fragrances earns him a place as the ageing vendor’s mentee. While helping re-energize his business, Jean-Baptiste learns a number of new facts, most significantly that all perfumes are made up of twelve scents, with the potential for a mythical thirteenth able to effect human behavior. Seeking the perfect fragrance, the young protagonist heads to Grasse, idyllic rural country, where his quest begins taking in human subjects and becomes murderous and, ultimately, legendary.
Despite setting its stall with a hero’s journey format of storytelling right from the opening stages, including an arduous origin story and an appropriately cooky narration by John Hurt, Perfume actually ends up playing out like an extremely dark and seductively dangerous fairy tale. Introduced to the monosyllabic Jean-Baptiste from the earliest possible moment, his unsavory birth, we witness him over time turn from plucky peon to determined and amoral human hunter, as the film shifts into horror strands not reflected by the narrative or style. It makes for an often uncomfortable, ethically confusing but extraordinarily mounted experience.
In fact, the film’s neutrality on Jean-Baptiste and refusal to look at him in a skewed light proves to be both bold and apt. The arc that sees him working in Grasse and stalking young aristocrat Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is thematically more like an unrequited love saga, complete with longing looks from the bushes and the desperate urge to grow closer. Even when he begins killing and farming the local women, putting Laura’s father Antoine (Alan Rickman) on his trail, it doesn’t seem sinister. Like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the film-leading villain is treated as would be an emotionally malnourished underdog.
This duplicity is aided by a consistent sense of wonder and fantasy around the story’s framing, the clear indicator that this is no ordinary turn of events. From Jean-Baptiste’s superhero olfactory abilities to the running gag of harsh fate to those he leaves, we are treated to a magical, Grimm brothers style fable with all the crazed dressings. The pay off to this, the film’s hotly debated climax, is both totally in line with all that preceded it and also an incredibly enticing and mesmeric scene, while the final stage of the journey is equally cerebral, bizarre and in hindsight quite horrific. Most of the genuine horror that comes out of Perfume doesn’t occur to one until after it’s been viewed, such is the iron fisted hold that Tykwer has over the audience, result something between hallucinogenic and rapturous.
As mentioned, none of this would be in any way compelling were the central character framed in the same light he should be judged, and much of this comes from a great performance by Ben Whishaw, who somehow manages to bring vulnerability and plucky, single minded endeavor to Jean-Baptiste’s villainous pursuits. There are times, worryingly, when we root for him and breathlessly hope for his plans to come to fruition, though part of this is latterly rewarded morbid curiosity. Elsewhere, Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood give strong turns as father and daughter, and Dustin Hoffman is entertaining and egregiously kitsch as Baldini. Were the film of any other shade, he’d seem horribly out of place and over the top, but given the backdrop and mood of the piece, he’s right at dysfunctional home.
This mood is also aided by sweeping visuals that toss and turn between stunning period vistas and cloyingly cerebral representation of smell, a part of the book many feared could never be sufficiently conveyed on screen. Tykwer pulls it off with aplomb, one of his many triumphs, and Simon Rattle’s harmonic choir of a score is a joy to listen to, framing scenes with necessary levels of near biblical crescendo and purposeful suspense.
Overly decadent if utilized elsewhere, of course, but Perfume is such an extraordinary story that anything less modest would fail to do it justice. While some may find themselves disconcerted by the hypnosis of the film’s dark pursuits, it is still a shockingly intoxicating ride through more than just one sense. Immoral and ethically unsound perhaps, Perfume is both a nod to the lynchpin of experimental art and European cinema’s sinister voyeurism while mounting a monster as the hero of an archetypal, resounding and utterly unforgettable journey. Niche, maybe, but it has to be seen to be truly appreciated for what it is; a work of art.