“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is an extremely valiant effort to visualize the scent-oriented novel “Das Parfum” by Patrick Suskind, over which Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton both threw in the towel. Both the novel and the film follow an Enlightenment-era killer in a detached, third-person style. The novel’s tone treats the people of the past with condescension, which is at first jarring, but then we realize that it’s Suskind’s way of having his cake and eating it too: he is simultaneously detached from his lead, yet he is able to convey the killer’s hatred of the world. The movie, directed by “Run Lola Run” Tom Tykwer, wisely dumps this tone, which is tolerable on the page but not so good on the screen.
The killer (Ben Whishaw) is a dirt-poor pre-Revolution Parisian, born in the muck with a superhuman sense of smell and no moral compass. Naturally he turns to perfumery, the way a man with exceptional hearing turns to music or a man with great sight becomes a painter. His quest is to capture the scent of everything; as his mentor (Dustin Hoffman) puts it, the scent of something is its soul. The movie is set in the Enlightenment because that was when Europe began to wonder if there is no God. Without another world after this one, the eventual disappearance of everything is terrifying and depressing. As Hoffman tells of how a Pharaoh’s millennia-old perfume smelled magnificent and was then lost, the killer’s face crumples in heartbreak. He MUST record everything.
The killer doesn’t start a God-complex, but the movie puts him on mountaintops, in front of crosses, and in a communion…of sorts. If life cannot be eternal, then the ability to record it is the next best thing. But the killer’s quest to record turns to a quest to make a perfume that will convince others that he is the most amazing person they have ever met. If you’re bothered by how preposterous this is, then you don’t really have any business in a movie theater anyway.
Some of “Perfume’s” best scenes hearken back to “Blow-Up” and “The Conversation,” in which we see a man content in his lonely work. We follow the killer not so much through stalking his victims but through every step of capturing their scent off their corpses, and every step of his training leading up to it. So often movies gloss over how things actually work, but here we see the killer learning the ins and outs of perfumery.
Hoffman has fun as his arrogant mentor and Alan Rickman plays the closet thing to the killer’s nemesis. (I spent the entire novel waiting for the killer to lock horns with a man with no nose.) As the killer, Whishaw is rough, myopic, asexual, an aggressive physical performance with no speechifying or Oscar clips.
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