Scents and Sensibility

An attempt to turn smell into cinema

A multimillion-euro adaptation of a best-selling German novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer relates the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born in 18th-century Paris with a uniquely puissant sense of smell. He begins life as an orphan, sold into servitude to a brutal tanner, but in Toucan Sam fashion follows his nose into the rarefied world of perfumers, where his superhuman gift proves highly valuable. However, Grenouille has little interest in financial reward. After a brief yet intense infatuation with the bodily smell of a comely fruitmonger leads to her sudden death, Grenouille becomes obsessed with discovering the means to create a permanent record of an individual's scent and to concoct the ultimate "scent of all things," the most powerful perfume possible.

The pungent plot may sound preposterous, and indeed it's hard not to snicker early on, when Grenouille is introduced as a mere nose hanging in darkness, his inner life revealed via a digital zoom up his nostril. When the action shifts to the vial-clinking realm of perfumeries, the film is filled with slightly ludicrous close-ups of dainty noses sniffing at the air, followed by orgasmic coos of feminine delight. A face-powdered Dustin Hoffman plays Grenouille's mentor, the once-legendary but now-moribund perfumer Giuseppe Baldini; one wonders whether the casting hinged on the actor's near-legendary schnozz, since his Methodish grumbling through stilted Augustan diction plays against the straight-faced classical training of the otherwise British cast (which includes Alan Rickman, himself a man of snooty prominence).

Perfume is easily the most nasally fixated movie to hit theaters since John Waters distributed "Odorama" scratch-and-sniff cards for Polyester, but here the olfactory theme is pursued with costumed gravitas and whispered awe. Despite dealing a few unintentionally silly moments, director Tom Tykwer (best known for the rave-era novelty Run, Lola, Run) avoids the potential for Terry Gilliam-esque whimsy, opting instead for a dead-serious brand of magical realism. He trounces the inherent camp of the period's flouncy dress and stiff manners by encrusting his characters with varying degrees of quasi-medieval grunge — a visual indicator of the richly stinky world in which they live. Filthiest of all is Grenouille, to whom the largely silent Whishaw skillfully imparts a squirrelly eyed, near-feral derangement.

Scent of a woman: Ben Whishaw (right, with Karoline Herfurth) follows his nose in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Scent of a woman: Ben Whishaw (right, with Karoline Herfurth) follows his nose in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

The film's most intriguing and successful aspect is its attempt to depict what its narrator (gravel-voiced John Hurt) calls "the fleeting world of scent" through audio and images. Cinema, as Siegfried Kracauer put it, is pure externality, and smell is an internal sensation with a physical kick. Tykwer attempts to convey smell synesthetically, evoking the missing sense with fleshy sights and sounds. Grenouille's genesis in a fish market is filled with sloppy squishes, muddy boot trudges, bloody halibut heads, and one slimy baby, and his super-snoot allows him to discern the components of everyday air, depicted in quick mental flashes as he catalogues each distinctive aroma. When the young lad discovers the pleasures of woman, it is through his prodding proboscis, which he gently snuffles up and down one lady's naked corpus.

But Perfume's hyper-fragrant world strives beyond mere physical sensuality toward a spiritual erotic. Indeed, the apparatus of perfume-making that Grenouille learns in Baldini's employ, which includes a hulking alembic, resembles the mystical machinery of alchemy. During Grenouille's apprenticeship, Baldini explains the legend of an ancient perfume, discovered in an Egyptian tomb, whose intoxicating qualities caused millions to see Paradise. One of its ingredients, like the alchemists' quintessence, has never been replicated. And Grenouille's eventual devolution into serial killer arrives not so much as a consequence of his sniffling animality, but as an extension of his Proustian quest for the lost scent of his first love, which he pursues with a series of experiments on human bodies. Once he discovers the secret, the perfume is so powerful that others think he is an angel; Tykwer expresses the intensity of its efflorescence through cascades of golden light and spine-shivering drones of Dolby bass-boom.

It's a noble experiment in pushing the limits of cinema, but Tykwer never achieves true profundity. Despite the fixation on depicting interior experience, the film's characters are mere storybook ciphers, and the film's final third moves perfunctorily through the murders touted in its title. The attempts at synesthesia never quite reach the empyrean heights we are supposed to imagine. One too many sequences of ruffling silks and dreamy flower bouquets evoke little more than the ad-agency clichés of an elongated Chanel No. 5 commercial.

 
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