Sunday, December 31, 2006

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER - bonkers but gripping

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER is a bewildering movie: moments of psychotic genius and lush photography interspersed by clumsy voice-over, mis-casting and the plainly bonkers. I didn't enjoy all of it, and I'm not sure if I'd rightly recommend it, but I was transfixed for the entire two and a half hour run-time because the movie was so intensely bent on its own bizarre path.

PERFUME is based on the 1980s bestseller by German author, Patrick Süskind, and has finally reached the screen thanks to Tom Tykwer of LOLA RENNT fame. Written off as unfilmable by Stanley Kubrick, what we have here is a fairly long but swift-paced adaptation that sticks fairly closely to the novel (which I read some time ago) in all but one major aspect: perhaps in a sop to the box office, the movie makes the protagonist physically and morally more attractive than in the book.

In the novel, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an amoral monster from the get-go. Born into the squalor of an 18th century Parisien fishmarket, his first cry sends his murderous mother to the gallows and he is rejected by a series of wet-nurses for being over-greedy and having no scent - a particularly unnerving and unique trait and ironic considering that he has also an unparalleled olfactory sense. In the novel, he is rejected by playmates in the poor-house and fellow workers - unconsiously his lack of scent makes him inhuman and soul-less in their eyes and provokes Jean-Baptiste to become bitter and bent on preserving and thus acquiring human scent. He tries to do this by killing a girl with the perfect scent of pure innocence but is traumatised when her scent evaporates upon death. Accordingly he begins an apprenticeship with an ageing perfumer of waning powers called Baldini, but leaves for Grasse when he fails to preserve the scent of anything but flowers with Baldini's method of distillation. In Grasse, Jean-Baptiste discovers a technique that allows him to capture the scent of a human being, including the intoxicating scent of the innocent, and he begins a killing spree to fuel his "enflorage".

In the novel, Jean-Baptiste is single-minded, embittered and ruthlessly murderous and this moral sickness is reflected in his physical monstrosity - scarred and pitted by illness and poverty. By contrast, in the movie, Jean-Baptiste is pitiable: a pathetic creature cursed with an acute sense of smell and yet no smell of his own. His first murder is in fact accidental and his latter murders can be understood in terms of his lack of moral or physical education; his infantile conception of the world and the fact that his rare gift has unbalanced his mind. His physical deformities have been toned down and Ben Whishaw, who plays Jean-Baptiste, simply looks like a blundering infant trying desperately to acquire a soul, not truly understanding the cost of his actions. To be flippant, he simply wants to be loved, even if he must steal what it is that makes us love-able - our soul - from someone else.

I cannot say that I disapprove of this change. It is far more engaging and challenging for the viewer to see a somewhat sympathetic character engage in callous murders. And Ben Whishaw gives a tremendous central performance and I shall have to stop unfairly picturing him as the idiot Pingu from the cult TV show, Nathan Barley. In general, the rest of the cast is fine, especially Alan Rickman as the perceptive father of Jean-Baptiste's final scalp. The movie is also handsomely photographed and uses wonderful European locations with sumptuous costume and set designs.

Having said that, the movie seriously slips up in the first third by using a clumsy voice-over narrative by John Hurt. He has a Jackanory tone that I find vaguely condescending, but that could be because I always associate his voice-overs with DOGVILLE and MANDERLAY (a film I cordially disliked.) I just don't think the narrative is necessary - the film-makers should have had more faith in their audience. The other big slip-up in the first third of the film is casting Dustin Hoffman as Baldini: frankly, he seems out of his depth.

The movie seriously picks up in quality as Jean-Baptiste moves to Grasse and the real killing begins. The voice-over ends, the acting improves and it becomes a fantastically sinister serial-killer flick. But of course we are still left with the "problem" of the two-part ending. For readers who haven't read the novel I won't go into details. Suffice to say, that the uncharitable will call the ending bonkers and laugh out loud. I was sufficiently engrossed in the movie, and the pity of Jean-Baptiste, to go with it and see it as the still bonkers and yet extremely logical ending to a tragic tale.

PERFUME premiered in Germany in September 2006 and has since been released in Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal, Estonia, Spain, Argentina, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Israel, Bulgaria, Denmark, Greece, the UK and US. PERFUME goes on release in Hungary and Sweden on January 11th, Finland and Norway on January 19th and in Australia and Iceland on February 1st. It opens in Japan on March 10th 2007.


  1. There are no sites hotter than Rufus Sewell!

  2. Saw Perfume recently, well done in general, good character building, original cinematography... expresses a lot about human nature as well.