Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, "Enduring Love," "Stoned") was born in the stinking fish market where his working mother left him for dead, but the odoriferous environment jolted his senses and his cry was heard by a customer. The boy endured the tough life of an eighteenth century orphan, but his incredible nose earns him an apprenticeship with the once great Parisian perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, "Stranger Than Fiction"). After learning his trade he continues on to Grasse, but the essential oil he is looking to extract has never been captured before in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer."
Director Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run," "Heaven") finally stops trying to be the late, great Krzysztof Kieslowski and in so doing, delivers a breathtaking film. Although Tykwer's films were always beautiful to look at (cinematography by Frank Griebe), they also could be both shallow and pretentious. In adapting the 1985 Patrick Süskind novel (along with Andrew Birkin, "The Name of the Rose" & Bernd Eichinger, "Downfall"), Tykwer has achieved one of those rarities - a film that reads better on screen than on the page.
This incredibly faithful adaptation tackles a serious obstacle - using a visual and aural medium to relate the sense of smell - and from the get go, Tykwer, his production designer (Uli Hanisch, "The Princess and the Warrior"), cinematographer and editor (Alexander Berner, "Resident Evil," "Alien vs. Predator") are up to the challenge. After the initial image - the adult Grenouille's nose emerging from the shadows to twitch and sniff - we're plunked into the fetid, rotting environment of the infant's birth and it practically oozes off the screen. An odoriferous montage of the market - a dog eating entrails, maggots, fishheads and rats - establish the soup of smells this oddly pale babe has been discharged into.
The child's proclivity to practically consume the world through its nose makes the children it is placed with recoil and the boy would lead a lonely life were it not for his sociopathy. When he is of age, Madame Gaillard (Sian Thomas, "Vanity Fair"), a person of his own ilk, sells him off to a local tanner (and is immediately felled by thieves - from his mother onwards, any person who tries to profit by his loss is smote from above). Dispatched on an errand, Grenouille is reveling in the smells of Paris when one note rises above all others - the scent of a red-headed girl bearing a basket of yellow plums (Karoline Herfurth). Grenouille trails her, frightens her with his odd attentions, then trails her more covertly, right into the room she believes she inhabits alone. When she senses him and attempts to scream again, he smothers her, then tries to fix her scent forever in his memory.
The nascent serial killer takes a long break to learn the perfumery trade, but eventually returns his attentions to the scents of young women, the last of which, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood, "Peter Pan," "An American Haunting"), is the protected daughter of the wealthy merchant Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"). When her distraught father discovers that despite his best efforts, the beast has slain his only child, the countryside is turned upside down to catch the killer. But Jean-Baptiste's quest to distill the world's beauty into an intoxicating perfume provides him with one last surprising upper hand.
Tykwer's brilliant production engages all our senses, his film's intensity a thing of beauty whether groveling in the mud or gazing upon the flawless face of a young woman. Every technical aspect of the film is top notch, from the rich photography that makes objects glow with the shadows cast around them to the intricate editing (watch for the split second imagery that brings Grenouille's mother from fish market to gallows). Original music composed by Pale 3 bandmates Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer is performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and is one of the best scores of the year.
In the tricky lead role, Ben Whishaw is able to encompass both a wide-eyed, wild wonder at the world and the predatory nature of a killer and survivor. Dustin Hoffman plays his best period performance to date as the waning perfumer who cannot believe his good fortune and Rickman simply never disappoints. The considerable narration, which is as intricately embedded into the whole as it was in "Dogville," is performed to perfection by that film's narrator John Hurt.
"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a lush fable about the baseness and beauty of humanity where the ethereal power of scent embodies spirituality. It is also one of the truly great films of 2006.
Robin's review coming soon!
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