'Perfume' is a sensory overload
The first thing we see in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a man's nose. It looms out of the darkness and takes a long, thoughtful sniff.
The nose is the movie's hero. The villain is the fellow attached to it. Directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer, the clever German prankster who gave us "Run Lola Run," "Perfume" is a pitch-black period epic of squalor and enterprise. Fittingly, it begins with an overpowering strength that slowly dissipates over the next two and a half hours.
Based on the 1985 cult novel by Patrick Suskind -- Kurt Cobain wrote a song about it and Stanley Kubrick gave up trying to turn it into a movie -- the film's subject is the life, times, and grave misdeeds of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan raised in the worst poverty 18th-century France has to offer but whose olfactory gift is prodigious.
More than prodigious. Grenouille can smell an apple being thrown at his head, or a couple making love in another building. He can inhale the latest perfume and immediately break it down into its constituent parts. He smells things first, finds word for them later.
Because he has known nothing but cruelty from the moment of his birth, his talent has no moral compass. Grenouille craves human aromas -- we learn in passing that he has none of his own -- and he pursues methods of preserving them with the dispassion of a skilled lab technician, even after the bodies start piling up. He's both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
Indeed, in many ways Tykwer has created a visionary modern remake of a 1930s Universal horror movie, down to the childlike beast, panicky villagers, and German Expressionist shadows reaching out to suck us under. On the level of craft, the film is almost evilly gorgeous to behold. Frank Griebe's camera peels apart layers of Dickensian grime to find unexpected beauty. Montages of odors, brilliantly edited by Alex Berner , convey Grenouille's sensory overload. Even the sound editing feels raw and revelatory.
"Perfume" takes its time, and Tykwer leaves room for moments of gallows humor. Narrated by a sardonic John Hurt , the story begins with Grenouille's birth in a fish market -- a moment out of "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" -- and grimly proceeds forward from orphanage to indentured servitude to apprenticeship with a failed parfumier (Dustin Hoffman, made up to look like Punchinello and very funny for his 15 minutes of screen time).
Eventually, our tall, dark, and psychotic anti hero lands in the small town of Grasse, where he sets about collecting the elements of his greatest work of art. Young women begin to disappear from the streets and "Perfume" drolly observes the reaction of the village leaders as they waver between faith and rationality. The former is represented by a rather overplayed Bishop (David Calder ), the latter by the enlightened merchant Richis (Alan Rickman, sadly intelligent as always) who has a lovely young daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) to protect.
As astonishing as "Perfume" often is to watch, it has a built-in limitation: The main character is and remains a cipher. The 26-year-old Whishaw is a British stage up-and-comer (his "Hamlet" got raves at the Old Vic in 2004), and he has presence, all right -- he makes Grenouille a feral and sensitive instrument. The character never develops, though. His madness widens in ambition but neither deepens nor turns unexpected corners, and after a while the film bumps into a wall and stops moving.
Well, the final scenes are unexpected -- I'll say only that Grenouille's experiments pay off in ways even he isn't prepared for -- but they're also unbelievable, even laughable. The director stays true to the source novel even when it lifts into a magical realism that works only on the page, and his faithfulness betrays him. "Perfume" is a thriller that Hobbes might have envied, with a vision of life that's nasty, brutish, short, and alluring. In the end, though, Tykwer seems more interested in scents than sensibility.