Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer Review

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Born in 1744, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) is a young man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, who becomes obsessed with capturing scent after accidentally killing a girl with an irresistible aroma.


So many supposedly unfilmable novels have now been successfully realised that the word ’unfilmable’ has arguably been rendered redundant. Yet Bavarian writer Patrick Süskind’s 1985 bestseller Perfume provided its own special challenge. Not least because the author refused to sell the rights for 15 years, adamant that his book’s main theme, smell, could not work in a visual medium. He had a point, but Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer has proven Süskind wrong.

Don’t worry, it’s not a Smell-O-Vision movie; there’s no scratch ’n’ sniff card. If there was, Grenouille’s (Ben Whishaw) harrowing birth — in which he’s spat out of his mother’s womb and left to die, twitching, in a pile of rotting piscine entrails under the counter of her fish-market stall — would be even more gut-churning than it already is. It’s in his attention to detail that Tykwer handles cinema’s inability to tweak the olfactory nerve. Almost everything sniffed in the film, from the nauseating to the delectable, is glimpsed in vivid close-up, cornering our imagination into summoning up the pong for itself.

A welcome byproduct of this approach is that Tykwer recreates Grenouille’s dark, filthy and, yes, thoroughly stinky era with relish and precision, making sure we view the harsh world of Perfume from gutter-up. And this is how Grenouille sees it too, clawing his way up from fish-market floor to a job as a journeyman perfumier in a Provencal town.

Grenouille is a tricky character: spending much of the film serially bludgeoning young women to death, he’s the villain of the piece, but also, given our insight into his childhood, a tragic figure. In the hands of 26 year-old English actor Ben Whishaw, he’s a near-autistic bundle of constrained twitches, a man gifted with a superhuman talent but cursed by an inability to exploit it constructively.

Whishaw commands the screen, even opposite Dustin Hoffman, who plays his hapless mentor with near-OTT flourishes, and Alan Rickman (like Hoffman, presumably cast in a key role thanks as much to his aquiline profile as his acting nous), as the father of Grenouille’s ideal victim (Rachel Hurd-Wood, aka Wendy in 2003’s Peter Pan). The only thing he can’t supersede is the film’s principal flaw: fidelity to the novel. Numerous episodes have been omitted, but still the 140-plus-minute run time is overly extravagant.

Grenouille is soulless just as he is scentless. He’s barely human, a shade almost, emotionless and cold. And despite Whishaw’s impressive efforts, a sense of why remains in the film’s bizarre, borderline-preposterous finale. Still, while that robs Perfume of true emotional resonance, it remains a thought-provoking triumph of style.

The odd conclusion renders it somewhat oblique, but Perfume is a feast for the senses. Smell it with your eyes...