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An ornate German-American co-production set in 18th-century France and based on an international bestseller, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer boasts grandiose conceits, spectacular scenery, and an upscale (if linguistically motley) cast. Any sense that the results are somehow classy, however, fades like cheap cologne when aristocratic Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) renders his verdict on the yet-unidentified wretch who’s been slaying the most beautiful young women of a picturesque Provence village. The killer is not a sexual deviant, exclaims Richis. “He’s a collector!”
That cliché of the pseudo-psychological serial-killer genre reveals Perfume as the usual misogynist pulp, however well-regarded its source novel. Adapted from Patrick Süskind’s 1985 book by writer-director Tom Tykwer and co-scripters Bernd Eichinger and Andrew Birkin, the movie is as silly and nasty as it is sumptuous. Tykwer, who made his reputation with the 80-minute Run Lola Run, here takes nearly twice as long to present a scurrilous, slasher-flick philosophy of art: that man is the creator, woman the muse, and sometimes what she inspires is her own murder.
Perfume’s pretext for homicide is simplistic; its scenario is elaborate. The film covers almost 30 years in the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), who’s born to a scandalously indifferent mother in a Paris fish market. Given the ostentatious stinks of Grenouille’s early life—among them fish guts, vomit, and the tannery to which he’s sold at 13—it would be a blessing if he had no sense of smell. In fact, he has a phenomenal one. What the young man lacks is any scent himself, a deficiency that’s a metaphor for his existential emptiness. Grenouille (French for the venerable ethnic slur “frog”) will concoct the greatest perfumes ever as aesthetic compensation for his own odorlessness.
The aroma artiste begins his killing spree by accident. Wandering Paris, Grenouille is mesmerized by a delicate fruit peddler, who Tykwer treats as a collection of fragrant PG-rated parts—neck, hair, cleavage, arms—in a series of rapturous close-ups. When she screams, her abductor covers her mouth to muffle the sound and accidentally suffocates her. Then a soprano begins to warble distantly as Grenouille sniffs the corpse.
If you’re not giggling yet, wait ’til a rouged and powdered Dustin Hoffman enters, playing washed-up perfumer Baldini. Late one night, Grenouille arrives at Baldini’s shop, perched on a bustling computer-rendered bridge over the Seine, and reveals himself as a prodigy of florals, spices, and musks. Grenouille’s perfume formulas revive Baldini’s business, and in exchange the young sniffer learns the secrets of the trade. Undertaking private experiments, he tries to distill the essences of scentless substances like copper and glass, as well as—a precursor of his ultimate project—a dead cat.
Grenouille learns from Baldini that Grasse is the capital of perfume, and so he treads through fields of lavender to that Provençal town. Along the way, he apprehends the fast-moving scent of a woman: Richis’ daughter Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), who rockets by in a coach. Once settled in Grasse, Grenouille begins refining the extracts of the women he kills, and he combines them to make a fragrance of overwhelming erotic power. (Its finished version can turn the population of a small city into the cast of Shortbus—minus the gay-male stuff.) But there’s still a missing ingredient: Laura.
While Hoffman and Rickman teeter on the lip of self-parody, Whishaw plays Grenouille as a pasty-faced blank; he’s as devoid of personality as he is of odor. But then he has a voice that follows him everywhere, explaining his sensations and motivations. It’s John Hurt, who also narrated Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay. In those films, however, the voice-over had a Brechtian cross-purpose; here it’s as literal-minded as everything else, from the plodding script to the annoying classical-pastiche score, composed by Tykwer and tekno pals Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (with extensive help from orchestrators and other real musicians). Perfume desperately wants to be pungent, which is why it exults in murder—a classic gambit for bloodying an anemic tale—and cinematographer Frank Griebe’s close-ups of stuff that reeks. Yet all for its spectacle, the movie is no more piquant than the smell of copper or glass.