Try to imagine smell -- not necessarily the image of food, cloth, or wood that accompanies a particular scent, but the actual olfactory sense flying through the wind. Though any sensory element is tough to capture on film, Tom Tykwer has given us a wonderfully dark and emotionally twisted horror film in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that harnesses one of the most difficult to imagine. To say the least, the director of the electrically charged Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) has meticulously crafted an adaptation of Patrick Süskind's novel, "Das Parfum", that's packed with mesmerizing tension.
Narrated by Alien and V for Vendetta star John Hurt, Perfume drops us into a raunchy, grimy puddle within a crumbling market in 18th Century France. Orphaned and abandoned at birth, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) shuffles to and fro between "owners" as a slave, stumbling along and learning whatever inklings about human nature he possibly can without a speckle of guidance. The one thing he does discover, and harness, is an insurmountably potent sense of smell that can absorb the rich scents of the world to endless bounds.
From the decadent aroma of flowers and vegetation to the obscure taste of wet, molding stone and rotting flesh, nothing escapes Jean-Baptiste's nose. A "power" like his, even in his dilapidated surroundings, eventually has to surface. Lending fuel to his innate fire, an aging perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) discovers the young boy and his capacity to isolate smell. Baldini doesn't know about the unsavory desire for scent preservation that begins to rapidly unfurl with Jean-Baptiste's education -- and the boy's crumbling, brazen sanity building within his growing desire for women.
An intriguing, humorous anti-development story about an unguided youth very quickly evolves into something close to a tense nightmare, as Perfume shifts tones at this point from being dark with a dash of humor to purely macabre horror. What makes Tykwer's film so haunting isn't just the way he harnesses smell on screen, but his manipulation of the olfactory sense itself. As humans, we rely on scent as somewhat of a pleasure organ. From picking up fluttering scents escaping food to the undeniable rage of erotic flavor, he keeps us fully aware of the nose as a way to grasp unbridled wonder from the world.
Does Ben Whishaw, a young, skinny actor with few claims to his name, make a compelling anti-hero in Jean-Baptiste as he sniffs his way into becoming a oddly-motivated murderer? Unquestionably. Watching him absorb the mucky, expansive world around him repeatedly embraces the aura of a snake "tasting" the world through its quivering tongue. Along with purely nailing down creepy, he makes being unnerved a load of fun. There are small twinkles in his aromatic eyes that reflect innocent disparity with an uncontrollable glisten of vigor. And it all works wonderfully inside his quiet, unaware personality to give him discomforting menace. Whishaw has risen to the occasion in several other performances, namely in Brideshead Revisited, but his portrayal of Jean-Baptiste lingers enough to remind of its potency with each of the actor's roles. It wouldn't be unreasonable to chalk up Jean-Baptiste as one of the more unique, oddly disturbing villains from the past ten years of cinema, as his incensed quaffs and brashly lurid nature offer a compelling -- and violently unsettling -- entity to absorb.
Several other quirky, well-fleshed performances are what help to smooth out Perfume's unyielding vigor, counterbalancing the bleakness with plenty of demented humor and sublime theatrics. This is an aggressive tale that could've wobbled a bit along a non-watchable brink with the wrong cast; instead, Tykwer has made several very wise casting choices, two in particular. It's within Dustin Hoffman as Baldini and Alan Rickman as a father to one of Jean-Baptiste "interests" that an enjoyable radiance exists which counterbalances the film's shadowy weight. Tremendous dramatic quality exists in both, the only couth male presences in the film; however, their naturally playful auras give their characters a luster akin to coins glistening in the middle of those French mud puddles.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is an intriguing type of grotesque tale, one that aims to grapple more visceral audiences with its gratuity while also entrancing more discerning crowds with a rich story densely embedded in its iconic 18th Century French setting. Seamless in dramatic transition and carrying a fluent grace in visual style, it also has every dirty staple and grotesque stitch impeccably placed. Flowing through this terrarium of olfactory terror can really knock someone back with plain filthy detail, while watching this editing style that grasps the swollen, primitive dilapidation underneath civilization harks to a Requiem for a Dream style of sporadic snippets. They seem to harness these sensations just long enough for us to process and dispose them, leaving nothing more than the lingering thought of what might have been seen.
Tykwer then poises us into a surreal, uncomfortable twist between scent's eroticism and an underdeveloped passion raging within Jean-Baptiste. His unbridled nature, how it develops in many of the ways that our own passion develops at that age, build the tension naturally and, in ways, familiarly as we watch him develop. It's impressive how Tykwer accomplishes such discomfort in concocting a thoroughly discombobulating mindspace around the picture, all while allowing his audience to soak in these swirling eccentricities to a near-visceral level. Perfume's natural tension and ability to exploit its unique way of projecting aromatic elements transform this into a whopper of a hybrid picture that's evocative, horrific, and quite humorous as it churns deeper and deeper into the audience's psyche. Let all the scents of this unusual tale seep into your nasal cavity, because it certainly earns its worth as a well-textured gothic thriller from first whiff to the final bold flavor.
Constantin Film's Blu-ray presentation of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, an import from Germany, comes in a standard-width case with stunning artwork carried over from a poster not featured in the United States. Inside, a gorgeous, glossy quad-fold booklet features mini-biographies of the primary actors from the film -- in German -- along with technical specs for the disc and a chapter listing. This Blu-ray is, in fact, playable in Region A players, both the film and the German-language special features.
Menu design, unfortunately for English-speaking audiences, is also completely in German. Five options are available at the top menu: Filmstart (Play Film), Einstellungen (Sound Options), Kapitel (Scene Selection), Extras, and Trailershow -- semi high-definition (MPEG-2) trailers for Resident Evil 1-3, Hero - Director's Cut, as well as Fantastic Four & Rise of the Silver Surfer. Seeing even that slight hint of Hero in high-defintion is enough to make Asian epic fans salivate, even if it's all in German.
Video and Audio:
Though Paramount impressed with their initial standard-definition release of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the bold, lush cinematography screams out for greatness in the high-definition arena. Constantin Film's VC-1 encode of the 2.35:1 framed film sneaks in a few impressive blasts of clarity and retains the beauty of the film on a overall level, offering an impressive -- though flawed -- boost in visual brilliance over its lower-grade counterparts.
Let's get the less-than-impressive points out of the way first, namely the contrast levels. Along with carrying some rather gray shadows, there's an overwhelming amount of pixelation and macroblocking. Also, some blocking occurs during more densely intricate shots, especially during motion. These issues make for some highly problematic scenes where darkness is prominent, which happens to be a sizable chunk of the film. Bear in mind that this only takes some otherwise attractive scenes down just a peg or two. It's certainly not the fault of the framerate, which healthily sits around 30-33 mbps and stretches far upwards.
Outside of those points, Perfume looks absolutely stunning. From all the intricate details, including dirt, flower petals, and vials of perfume in Baldini's workshop, this Blu-ray disc renders a wildly radiant image filled with healthy intricacy from start to finish. Brick textures and other crevice-heavy shots stay very solid, keeping the somber tone of the film preserved. It gets even better when Jean-Baptiste steps out of the darkness and into sunlit scenes, which showcase the disc's exemplary capacity to flaunt high-definition color. Light-drenched fields and, especially, the appearance of amber-colored fluids and blistering red flower petals leap from the screen to astonishing levels. Since this was a fairly early Blu-ray disc, it isn't completely perfect; however, combined with the photography and the solid effort from Constantin Film, it's certainly an admirable high-definition image.
To accompany the beautiful image, Perfume comes paired with a DTS HD High Resolution track available in both native English and German options. For a lossy track, it certainly doesn't operate like one. Dialogue isn't just clear, but throaty and robust throughout as Ben Wishaw's baritone vocals jump out and surprise us from time to time. Surround elements flood the entire soundstage for practically the entire film, giving it depth and dimensionality that heightens every ounce of tension. Especially the musical accompaniment, which can really knock a few socks off with its impact. Though potent, it keeps an admirable balance that never drowns out any sound effects or spoken words.
Which brings up the array of sound effects -- the gentle lathering of Crisco-like fat onto surfaces, the clanking of tools, and even more subtle points like footsteps, splashes of water, and flickering flames -- many small additions to the soundtrack that heighten the viewer's senses. Each one holds the ambient mood of Perfume to stellar degrees, staying distortion free and highly pleasing. A boost to Master Audio levels would only heighten this track to unequivocal perfection, while this Blu-ray hits all the right notes brilliantly -- just a mild step or two away from faultlessness and very, very engaging.
Normally, time would be taken to describe each of the supplements in detail. That, however, isn't exactly possible, as almost all of them are available with German language options only -- and no English subtitles. Hence the low rating for special features, since this review centers around English-speaking individuals.
Along with three Commentaries with Tom Tykwer, production designers, and editors, as well as a slew of English and German Interviews (42:18 total, SD MPEG-2), there's also a massive Making-of Perfume (53:42, SD MPEG-2) documentary which incorporates interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Even without the English language option, it puts the piddly extra on Paramount's Region One DVD to shame.
Revisiting Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was a treat -- a bizarre, terse, discomforting treat filled with unsettling yet beautiful imagery around a shiver-inducing premise. Upon multiple screenings, it still holds up as a personal favorite horror film with plenty of grotesqueness and dramatic integrity to satisfy a broad range of viewers. The star of the show, however, is the compelling concept of a murderer with a nose of gold, along with Ben Whishaw in the spotlight as the tangibly horrific anti-hero Jean-Baptiste. Mixed with outstanding pacing over its two-and-a-half span and plenty of sights and sounds to satisfy aesthetic-hungry moviegoers, it's best described as "beautiful dilapidation".
Constantine Film's Blu-ray presentation of Perfume, a slightly earlier disc, looks and sounds great while offering a strong array of extras -- which, sadly, will only satisfy those who also speak German. Still, the high-definition quality of Tom Tykwer's engrossing film, an odd hybrid between horror, period drama, and discreet pitch-black humor, comes with a very High Recommendation.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site