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"PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER"
(2006) (Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Possessing an extraordinary sense of smell, an 18th century young man goes on a murder spree as he tries to extract and capture the perfect scent from his victims.
PLOT:
It's mid-18th century France and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (BEN WHISHAW) is a young man with an extraordinary sense of smell. Having grown up in an orphanage and then sold to work in a tannery, Jean-Baptiste arrives in Paris where he's overcome by the various odors and scents, the most alluring coming from a young woman whom he follows home. Accidentally smothering her, he then inhales the aroma of her femininity, forever locking that smell in his brain. When he later delivers tannery materials to once-successful Italian perfumier Giuseppe Baldini (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), Jean-Baptiste finds his calling and persuades the former master to hire him as an apprentice.

After learning the art of distilling and bottling various scents from him, Jean-Baptiste sets out for Grasse to work for Mme. Arnulfi (CORINNA HARFOUCH), creating perfume by extracting the smell of flowers through a process known as enfleurage. With the aroma of his first victim still haunting him, Jean-Baptiste desires to use the same process to capture the essence of what he believes is the perfect scent, that of women.

Accordingly, he becomes a serial murderer to perfect his process, something that doesn't sit well with widowed merchant Antoine Richis (ALAN RICKMAN) who's quite protective of his alluring, young adult daughter Laura (RACHEL HURD-WOOD) and tries to keep her away from the disturbed and obsessed young man.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Of all the species in the animal world, human beings are generally shortchanged when it comes to the senses. Sure, there's the overall intelligence aspect -- which is overrated in some and often seemingly absent in others -- but when it comes to sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, we're rank amateurs compared to those animals that utilize and need finely tuned control of them to survive.

Perhaps the one sense humans have become the most slighted in concerns smell. Sure, we can detect both foul odors and lovely aromas (and a multi-billion dollar industry revolves around replacing the former with the latter), but we don't use that the way other animals do (designating territories, detecting danger, picking out mates, etc.).

That is, except for Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the 18th century French protagonist in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." Based on Patrick Süskind's best-selling novel, the film is a hit and miss affair. Sporting something akin to the storytelling panache and visual flair of "Amelie," the story -- adapted by director Tom Tykwer and co-screenwriters Andrew Birkin & Bernd Eichinger -- tells the tale of our young character, from being born in a grimy French market, living in an orphanage, working at a tannery and then becoming the equivalent of Jack the Sniffer.

You see, without the benefit of any social graces, his first encounter with a lovely young woman ends up with him accidentally suffocating her. What follows is perhaps the film's most disturbing scene where he takes in her every scent by smelling her entire body, in something akin to a bloodhound trying to absorb every olfactory clue.

Bedeviled by that experience, he then sets out to capture and/or recreate it any way possible, including by enfleurage, a process traditionally used with floral scents. All of which leads to a murder spree, leaving him something of a soul mate to his real-life counterpart, Mr. Ripper.

Although I've never read Süskind's work, I've been told that it brilliantly captured the odors and aromas of its various settings, but director Tom Tykwer is only moderately successful at doing the same. Of course, with film being a visual medium (compared to the literary genre where readers' imaginations can help fill in the sensory blanks), that's no easy chore to replicate.

Thus, while the filmmaker successfully recreates intensely gritty London streets and surroundings that nearly make you able to imagine smelling them, doing the same for the protagonist's obsession (with close-ups of cleavage and such) isn't as successful.

Nor is the casting of or performance by Dustin Hoffman in the pivotal role of an Italian perfumier. Seemingly attempting to channel a Ricardo Montalban stereotype, the gifted actor is completely out of place here, likely eliciting chuckles if not outright laughs by more jaded viewers.

Yet, that's not their sole opportunity for such behavior, as the film precariously borders on and often falls off the edge into partial and sometimes even complete absurdity. That's especially true for a late in the film development and subsequent over-the-top scene that nearly threatens to make "Caligula" look like a training film for safe sex.

It's unclear if the filmmakers were aiming for that sort of reaction, and viewer response is likely to vary wildly. At our screening, half of those in attendance were laughing aloud while the rest were indifferent or bored (exacerbated by the film's nearly two and a half hour runtime). Then there were the few who didn't understand why not everyone else was seeing the film the way they did, as brilliant cinema.

There are things to admire. The film's cinematography and production design are first-rate, and I enjoyed the "Amelie" touches from the darkly whimsical moments (including what happens to those after they pass off the protagonist to others) to the similar style narration by John Hurt (who replaces Otto Sander for the English speaking markets).

And then there's Ben Whishaw who makes quite the indelible impression as the sort of creepy but fascinating character one might have seen in the old "X-Files" TV series. While clearly not sympathetic, Whishaw's performance is nothing short of intriguing, disturbing, and, yes, even ridiculous from time to time.

Aside from Hoffman, other performers fit well into their period surroundings (especially those in the grit and grime of London squalor). Most notable is Alan Rickman who does a fine job portraying an upper-class widower who's worried that his pretty daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) might be too alluring for the Sniffer to resist.

Certainly ambitious but not always successful at transplanting a human sense from one storytelling medium to a far more difficult one, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is the cinematic equivalent of a cacophony of odors, aromas and all other types of smells: Some whiffs are pleasing, while others are decidedly less so. The film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 6, 2007 / Posted January 12, 2007


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