Perfume (Director: Tom Tykwer): Based upon the bestselling novel by Patrick Suskind, Perfume certainly sounded intriguing. In 18th-century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born with a uniquely keen sense of smell. But as the orphaned son of a fishwife, he grows up illiterate and unable to articulate his gift and the overwhelming desire it creates in him to preserve scent, especially the scent of beautiful young women. Before long, he’s become a sociopathic serial killer in his pursuit of the perfect perfume. Tykwer, known for the kinetic and economical thriller Run Lola Run takes the exact opposite approach here, stretching the film out to an excruciating 147 minutes. To make matters worse, Perfume‘s episodic structure means that characters introduced early in the film play their parts and then disappear forever (and I’m not just talking about the victims of our serial killer). Worst of all, the film is burdened with a ponderous voiceover, articulating all that Grenouille cannot, and making it clear that this story functioned much better as a book. Having someone offscreen tell us about Grenouille’s inner monologue fails to turn him into a real character, never mind one for whom we’d feel any sympathy.
In contrast to Whishaw’s almost autistic performance as Grenouille, Dustin Hoffman (as an Italian perfumier who teaches Grenouille his art) and Alan Rickman (as a nobleman whose beautiful daughter is a target of the killer) wildly overplay their characters, especially Hoffman. The portrayals of the separate classes in French society is almost cartoonish, with the foppish nobles lounging about in their powdered wigs while Grenouille carries out his grim murders dressed in rags. Their inept pursuit of the killer is played for a kind of comedy that removes us from the horror of the crimes. Perhaps the voiceover contributes as well, distancing us from the time period and from the characters as real people, and allowing us to treat the whole thing as an intellectual curiosity rather than as the confusing (for Grenouille) or horrifying (for the townspeople) situation it would have been in reality.
There are some ravishing visuals, as might be expected from such a sensual story. Each scent that arouses Grenouille’s nose needs to dazzle the audience’s eyes, and regular Tykwer cinematographer Frank Griebe is able to make sight a passable stand in for scent, at least in the early scenes. Near the end of the film, a technically impressive but rather dull orgy scene takes place in a village square, but by that time, the story had entered unbelievable territory and only left me snickering. In the end Perfume‘s lingering aroma isn’t a pleasant one.