I could have really used a scratch-n-sniff card for watching Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
While the Tom Tykwer-helmed adaptation of the Patrick Süskind novel didn't need any help when it came to evoking such olfactory sensations as a fish market or even an apple, it falls horribly short in communicating the most important scent in the story. A hopeless Parisian born in the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, Stoned) is born with a super sniffer, and if it weren't for that nose, he'd be dead. His mother tossed him on the scrap heap the instant he burst from her womb, but the foul odor of his surroundings prevented Jean-Baptiste from drifting into eternal slumber. His cries caused him to be taken from his mother and sent to an orphanage, where he began his pilgrimage to smell every smell that could ever be smelt.
Eventually, the adolescent Jean-Baptiste is sold into labor, and one day while making a delivery in the city, he discovers two things: perfume and the allure of a beautiful redhead (Karoline Herfurth, Girls on Top). This young lady, a fruit seller, sets him reeling, and Jean-Baptiste follows her through the backstreets of Paris, lead along on her feminine stink like a Looney Tunes character being drawn towards a freshly baked pie. The revelation of a young man standing behind her inhaling her essence naturally shocks the girl, and when she tries to scream, Jean-Baptiste is forced to stifle it, accidentally suffocating her. He strips her down, lingers over her body, tries to suck in every last bit of aroma before it drifts from her lifeless form, but alas, such things fade.
Haunted by what he has done, and even more so by the fragrance that now eludes him, Jean-Baptiste decides he needs to learn how to preserve a smell forever. He manages to use his skills to impress a perfumer (Dustin Hoffman) by dissecting a rival's most popular product, and he becomes the man's apprentice. From there, he learns a perfumer's skills, the various ways a scent is captured, and he starts on a set of experiments that will lead him down an increasingly dark path to understand the essence of personal smells, our own particular bouquet being the key to our individual souls.
As a primary motivating factor to lead an obsessive to homicide, the aroma of a dead girl is not a very good choice to build a movie on. Yet, that's exactly what Perfume does, and I have to give Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) credit for trying. He must have seen the challenges of conveying a sense that cinema is not capable of expressing, because he pulled out a lot of tricks to try to make Perfume a dizzying experience. For much of his exposition he relied on the narration of John Hurt, who has been pulling similar duty for Lars von Trier in Dogville and Manderlay. The voiceover explains to us much of what Jean-Baptiste smells and how he relates to the odors around him, as well as laying the groundwork for the magical realism that will become very important later on.
Tykwer provides visual back-up for Hurt by employing a kinetic style reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The tour through Jean-Baptiste's very separate and individualistic view of the world is like a darker version of the way the title character looked at life in Paris in Amélie, right down to the way Perfume begins with the boy's birth and carries us through formative experiences in his early life. The first time Jean-Baptiste concocts a fragrance for Dustin Hoffman is particularly effective. After just one whiff, the older man is transported from his dingy laboratory to a beautiful garden, complete with a gorgeous girl that will kiss him on the cheek and tell him she loves him. (It's Hoffman's best scene in an otherwise mediocre performance; his blunt manner seems incongruous to the rest of the movie.)
Sadly, Perfume gets less impressive from there, as Jean-Baptiste's obsession goes into high gear. He chases after another redhead (Rachel Hurd-Wood, An American Haunting) in pursuit of his elusive dream perfume, leading to a particularly over-the-top climax that shifts the movie from believable and into something else entirely. As Jean-Baptiste looks at the effects of what he has done, he sees the same yellow fruit that the first girl was peddling, and it makes him cry. I wasn't sure exactly why it made him cry, whether it was for something still lost or something regained, and that's when I realized that I didn't really know what that girl actually smelled like, what it was about her that had so intrigued him. According to the cast list, she is "the Plum Girl," but I'll be honest, I didn't know that those yellow orbs were a kind of plum, and there wasn't even a helpful hint from John Hurt to let us know that whatever she smelled like, it included this fruit. Ben Whishaw gives it his all in the performance, creating animated, demonstrative gestures for Jean-Baptiste's outward reactions to the smells that delight him, but if you wave your hands around in charades the way he does in the movie, there's no way I am going to spontaneously scream out, "Plums!"
So, having failed to effectively communicate what drives his movie, Tykwer's entire production veers off the proper path. The first hour or so, pretty much right up to Jean-Baptiste's initial misguided experiments, works pretty well, but Perfume lost me from there. Perhaps some tighter editing could have sped it up. After that early rush of Jean-Baptiste's young struggle, every scene seems to play a little too long, with Tykwer trying to capture every individual sniffle from Whishaw's nostrils. With another pass in the editing bay, Tykwer could have kept the picture moving rather than lingering too long on details that didn't matter, and with some speed, kept his audience invigorated and maintained the illusion of Jean-Baptiste's special world, and the final resolution of his journey could have been a magical revelation rather than a perplexing thud. Tykwer wanted me to smell roses in bloom, but instead, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is movie milk gone sour.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.