The Reeler


January 4, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Surrealist fable one of the most visually compelling films in recent memory

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer makes scents, not sense. Apologies for the lame pun, but Tom Twyker's brain-scrambling surrealist fable, based on the acclaimed book by Patrick Suskind, invites facetiousness. Set amid the dank alleys of 18th-century France, the story follows a troubled young man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, abandoned at birth and forced into a harsh life of labor without a single kind soul to help him along. His only chance for a better life is his powerfully receptive nose, able to detect odors far and wide, and Jean-Baptiste finds his passion in the art of perfume design. His obsession with the luscious smells of gorgeous women eventually develops a lethal streak, and the talented perfumer begins murdering hordes of beauties in order to pilfer their aromas for his own devices.

Suskind's novel had generally been considered unfilmable; even Stanley Kubrick abandoned plans in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Similar declarations were made about William S. Burroughs' psychedelic drug trip, Naked Lunch, until David Cronenberg applied his hallucinogenic wand and conjured psychedelic gold. Twyker, of course, brings personal idiosyncrasies to his project, and those who have seen his 1998 time-twisting hit, Run Lola Run, are familiar with his ability to stupefy audiences with breathless pacing and original technical strategies. Continuing that tradition with Perfume, Twyker's use of remarkably image-driven storytelling devices result in one of the most visually compelling films in recent memory.

Twyker punctuates the palette of deep grays used for the dark alleys and street corners with sudden bursts of color to bring Jean-Baptiste's original olfactory sense to life. As we lack the protagonist's uncanny endowment (although it was conceived as kitsch, this is one of the few movies that could actually benefit from Smell-O-Vision), objects that produce stellar fragrances stand out in the frame; a lime green apple careens through the air, and blood red rose petals congeal in an elegant pile (thankfully the only time Twyker inadvertently channels American Beauty).

Suskind's tale is a fantastical adventure framed by tragedy. Initially Grenouille, in chains and set for execution by the order of French authorities, appears resigned to his fate. Cue the flashback: Having discovered that he lacks a scent of his own, Jean-Baptiste decides to make a name for himself by crafting smells from the finest sources available. In the cultured city of Gras, he embarks on a killing spree complicated enough to exhaust Jack the Ripper: Offing prostitutes and rendering their scent by smearing them with pig fat, then stealing away into the darkness. Don't try this one at home, kids.

The gimmick works, amazingly enough, which tells you exactly how little logic Perfume requires to succeed as a demented fairy tale. Though the script drops at least one subplot from Suskind's novel, the film pushes past the two-hour mark by 27 minutes, and not without justification. Although it ultimately veers into the realm of complete absurdity, never to return, Perfume is never boring. Dustin Hoffman -- clearly enjoying himself under a pound of make-up and a laughably dense wig -- plays Grenouille's first perfume professor, who sends his disciple on a journey to discover the ancient secrets of scent extraction. Hoffman provides Perfume with its last foothold on familiar terrain; in its second half, the film grows increasingly whimsical, offering less explanation for its protagonist's behavior and weaving in more confounding developments. Grenouille's experimental creation of a brainwashing concoction inspires a trippy penultimate sequence that recalls the orgiastic scenes in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, with Twyker's orchestral score subbing for Yo La Tengo.

The hurdle that Twyker tries (and largely fails) to surmount is that of finding the right balance of sympathy and psychoses in portraying his hero. Grenouille is, as the title acknowledges, a murderer, and while nothing justifies his behavior, the character oozes pathos from the first scene until the credits. He's a likable creation and arguably ends up as a messianic one, while the crowds of citizens horrified by his killing spree are reduced to simpletons. It's as if the entire movie -- cast and crew in addition to the plot itself -- succumbs to his hypnotic concoction. Could there be an ulterior motive for the film's privileging of aesthetic appeal over moral boundaries? Could perfume, the vain person's extravagance, also offer a doorway to the redemptive properties of the human soul? Take a whiff and see.

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