New-Release Tuesday: Perfume, The Story of a Murderer

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Because Ben Whishaw is such a hot property these days, you may notice this early starring vehicle on Amazon and think, “Gosh, I’d love just about anything this guy is in!”

Yeah, just about. But maybe not this.

Perfume is the kind of film Quentin Tarantino might make if he were European and not so worried about impressing everyone with his knowledge. It’s the kind of film Kubrick did end up making, and that’s not much of a recommendation. It’s the kind of thing Gore Verbinski or Luc Besson might make if they stopped caring about future work. It’s the kind of film that makes Martin Scorsese think, “Gee, when did I go soft?”

It also might be–just might be–something you’ll like. Because it’s darned good art.

The opening scene of Perfume introduces us to the story’s protagonist—imprisoned, sentenced to death. Has justice been served? It’s left to us to decide; but whatever Grenouille has done, the verdict declares that, on the morrow, “acts of mercy are expressly forbidden.”

Watching Perfume is a bit like Grenouille’s date with the executioner. Director Tom Tykwer is not the least bit interested in showing mercy to his audience.

In this film, based on the novel by Patrick Süskind, Tykwer delivered what may be the most stunning directorial effort of the millennium’s first decade—and what may also be the most calculatedly brutal assault on an audience’s moral investment in cinematic narrative that I’ve ever seen.

Following the film’s opening sequence, a phenomenally conceived, scripted, and executed omniscient narration brings us back to where it all began: Grenouille’s birth in a Paris fishmarket. The stench of the setting is as graphic as Tykwer can make it in the absence of Odorama—and it’s enough to assault the dying newborn into taking a reluctant breath. Discarded on a heap of fish heads, the crying infant is rescued and packed off to an orphanage; his reprobate mother is dispatched to the gallows. This is a boy who is blessed with a legendary sense of smell, and is destined to leave death in his wake.

When he is old enough to be of monetary value, the matron at the orphanage sells Grenouille to a tanner—in whose service he is exposed to the richness of Parisian odors. First he is entranced by the wonders of perfume; then, through a sensory maze of fireworks and plums, his nose discovers that magical combination of sweat, manufactured scent, and femininity that is Woman. He can imagine nothing more beauteous; and in his deprived zeal to possess that beauty, he destroys it. Thus the first of his kills, unintentional though it may be.

Determined “never again” to “lose such sublime beauty” (as the late John Hurt’s divine narration tells us) Grenouille apprentices with an established perfume maker. He learns of the three chords—head, heart, and base—that comprise a perfume. He learns that each chord is made of four scented “notes.” He learns of the vast array of essences from which those twelve notes may be chosen—but he already knows them all (though he may not know their names) and he instinctively knows how to combine them more effectively than does his master.

What Grenouille doesn’t know is how to distill such an essence. Further, he learns of a mythical thirteenth note, one of mystery and power that yields a perfume so influential as to dismantle the human faculties.

His objective becomes clear: master the classical methods in order to capture the human essence—to show the world his genius. Alas! but his efforts at distilling living creatures fail, and he leaves his master behind as he departs for other environs more suitable to his pursuits. And that’s where the murder part of the tale comes in.

Not since Barry Lyndon has a period piece been so startlingly realized. Part of the magic of Perfume is not just that Hurt’s narration provides a moral grounding which gains us access to Grenouille’s twisted world; it’s also that Tykwer’s production design gives us the detail that we need to believe in this myth’s historical reality, but not so much that the details become a distraction. This is a world we want to see more of; this is a narrative that draws us in.

The first half of Perfume plays like a gritty and literate commentary on the dilemma of an artist. Is it even possible to capture beauty, to limn truth? If so, how do we go about it? Is it better to be blessed with innate talent, or to learn your craft by discipline? Perhaps some combination of the two? Given that Tykwer has said in interviews that film “is a way to … put [time] in a box”—to capture “the beauty of people”—it’s even easy to read the Paris sequence as Tykwer’s meditation on his own chosen artform, his private film fanaticism.

And then disaster strikes.

When Grenouille departs Paris for Grasse, a curious thing happens. He literally leaves all vestiges of civilization behind. This is no gauzy, romantic interlude in Provence; it’s a descent into terror and depravity. And Tykwer deliberately leaves the moral framework of the narration tottering back in the hills.

Where is the audience left? Sitting in the dark, wondering if the movie’s second half is some nihilistic lesson on the futility of capturing the essence of beauty and life. Trying to decide if the sequence in Grasse is nothing more than a Kubrickian exercise in cinematic redundancy. Questioning, perhaps, the advisability of sticking around for the execution.

Right before the fateful event, the father of one of the victims stares into Grenouille’s face and tells the murderer, “I will trickle my disgust into [your eyes] until, finally, you perish.” It’s a disgust the audience will surely understand, perhaps on more levels than one.

I won’t pretend that dissecting Tykwer’s film, as insightful an exercise as it may be, will make it go down any easier. Any gruel, regardless of its various parts and pieces, is still just gruel. And yet, if you’re after a heady (if grueling) experience, Perfume just might be the best film you’ve seen in years. In any event, it’s not a movie you’ll forget any time soon—even if you want to. Tykwer has succeeded spectacularly, like it or not.

Perfume was rated R for “aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images.” Many of my colleagues have decried the violence of this film’s contemporaties—ApocalyptoChildren of MenBlood DiamondThe DepartedCasino RoyalePerfume put them all to shame, and tried to. If the film were not so clearly artistic—and if Steven Spielberg were not so clearly supportive of the film—there’s no doubt in my mind that the MPAA would have rated it NC-17. It’s simply disturbing. Still, the “nudity” and “sexuality” are surprisingly sterile—partly because they’re beside the point, partly because audiences may be unclear if the film is misogynist or a statement about misogyny. The real crime for more timid audiences is that that the potentially offensive content (and there’s plenty of it) may totally overshadow a knockout performance by Ben Whishaw as Grenouille.

But then, I guess he got over it!

Come back tomorrow to read the interview I conducted with director Tom Tykwer when the film was released in 2006.

Perfume is scheduled to be available as part of your Amazon Prime subscription starting today. You can also stream it at YouTube.

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