A deeply mesmerizing exploration of one man's desperate search for his own humanity, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, is very much more than your average serial-killer story. Based on the German bestseller by Patrick Süskind and directed by Tom Tykwer (best known to American audiences for Run Lola Run), the film is meticulously true to both source and setting, plopping the viewer smack-dab into the middle of the bustling, over-crowded, stench of 18th-century France.
Where Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette filled the screen with the cotton-candy colors and fashions of the palace elite, Perfume delves into the realm of the lowest of the low -- an unwanted babe born to an unwed fishmonger, delivered amid filth and discarded to die in a pile of fish guts, who nonetheless finds it within his small self to cry out for life, thus condemning his mother to death and himself to an orphanage.
The infant, christened Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is a most unique child, born without any scent of his own, but with a nose that can detect and categorize the millions of minute scents with which he is surrounded. Grenouille is, above all else, a survivor, steadfastly clinging to life despite a mother who discards him in the garbage, fellow orphans who, sensing his difference, try to suffocate him, an orphanage matron who seeks only to profit from him, and a tannery owner whose trade routinely kills off the young children sold into his tender mercies.
Is a sociopath the product of nature or nurture? Perfume doesn't dwell much on Grenouille's parentage once his mother is disposed of, but it does show us something of the factors that may have contributed to his utter lack of regard for humanity as a whole. As such, it is just as relevant today, in an era of school shootings and suicide bombings, as it would have been in the years leading up to the French revolution, to examine the whys and wherefores of the myriad factors -- parentage, circumstance, abuse, neglect, and the curious nature of the child himself -- that combine in this fable to create a killer without conscience.
I fully expect a lot of folks to dismiss this film as violent and misogynistic, and looking at it just on the surface, it would be tempting to do so -- and it would also be completely missing the point. This is a film about a man who murders women, and yet, it isn't a film about a serial killer as such, but more examination of what it means, to be human, through the tale of Grenouille, this odd little man who goes to extraordinary lengths in order to capture and keep the essence of beauty and humanity. He seeks, in the most basic terms, to bottle up love and desire and beauty -- all those things of which he has been denied and deprived his entire pathetic, overlooked life -- and use it to achieve greatness, to inspire others to love him.
Grenouille as a character study is fascinating, and I would highly recommend reading the book after seeing the film, if you haven't read it beforehand. Tykwer, who is a great fan of the book, stays lovingly true to the source material, but even so a reading of the novel gives new glimpses into the machinations of Grenouille's twisted view of reality. Grenouille is both a sociopath and a savant; he is, in his worldview, the only person of any importance, a personage of heretofore unseen greatness. His remarkable ability to discern and categorize scents enables him to blend and create whole worlds of scent in his head. He neither needs nor desires other humans for anything -- until, as a young man, he becomes entranced by something that fascinates him as no scent has before: The scent of a beautiful young girl on the cusp of womanhood. Grenouille's unique nose filters out the girl's essence from the filth of her surroundings -- and finds it wholly satisfying in a way that no scent has ever satisfied.
Ben Whishaw (Layer Cake) turns in a remarkable performance as Grenouille -- a role that requires him to reveal an extraordinarily complex character largely through body language and facial expression. Dustin Hoffman has a nice turn as Giuseppe Baldini, a once-great perfumer, now obsolete, who exploits Grenouille's talented nose to restore his shop to its previous prestige, and Alan Rickman gives his usual reliably strong performance as the Marquis who leads the charge to find the serial killer before his beautiful daughter Laura becomes the next victim.
Tykwer, as always, was involved in every minute aspect of the film, from the script to the music (which he wrote as the script was being written), from the overall visual design to the costuming, hair and makeup of every last extra. This is Tykwer's first attempt at a period piece, and he seeks to completely immerse us in Grenouille's world, with no polite cutting away from the nastiness of smallpox sores and maggots, spoiling food and rotting teeth. As in Run Lola Run (and indeed, in all of Tykwer's work) the score plays a pivotal role in driving the film and, especially, in setting the mood. In Lola, the pounding, frenetic score reflected Lola's desperation to acquire the money needed to save her boyfriend. Likewise, in Perfume, Tykwer uses the score to reveal Grenouille's state of mind throughout the film. In particular, pay attention to the tone of the music during the sequence in which Grenouille "collects" his victims; this is a master class in how to use score to reveal a character's state of mind and innermost character.
Far from glorifying murder or a murderer, what Perfume does is lift the genteel skirts of polite society to reveal the rats and cockroaches running amok beneath. Perfume has already shown to strong box office returns in Europe; it remains to be seen how an American audience will react to this oddly poetic film about a murderer. Tykwer has woven a darkly unique fable that offers audiences, if they dare, the opportunity to come along for a most intriguing ride.