In order to admire "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," it is imperative not to have the wrong set of expectations. Based on the novel by Patrick Suskind and adapted for the screen by director-cowriter Tom Tykwer (1999's "Run Lola Run"), the film is something of a biopic of a fictional killerat least it starts that waybut takes such bizarre, far-fetched turns that those expecting a serious drama will walk away befuddled and unamused. Better, then, to think of "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" as a dark and twisted fable, one which doesn't hesitate to take giant leaps in logic but nevertheless works because it abides by its own set of rules.
Born an orphan in the grimy swell of 18th-century Paris, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is nearly a teenager before he learns how to speak. In the meantime, he clings to an ability that no one else has: an acute, super-powered sense of smell, so exacting that he can see with his nose. Now an adult, Jean-Baptiste convinces Parisian parfumier Giuseppe Baldini (a memorable, almost unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman) to hire him when he proves to have a masterful talent in mixing radiant perfume concoctions. As Jean-Baptiste's olfactory creations put Giuseppe's ailing business back on the map, he yearns in private to capture a new kind of scentone so powerful and lovely that it has never before existed in this lifetime. Tackling such a daunting undertaking comes with a price, however, and soon Jean-Baptiste has gone on a cold-blooded murdering spree in order to trap his virginal female victims' personal scents. When his work takes him to the city of Provence, he immediately spots the final, most challenging piece to his puzzle: beautiful young redhead Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of respected merchant Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman).
While sharing few parallel plot points outside of the superficial, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" owes its half-grim, half-whimsical tone to Robert Browning's classic folk tale, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." A morality yarn with a lead character who is a stranger to love and compassion, the film and Browning's story feature decidedly different outcomes but a familiar feel and pitch. Jean-Baptiste is a doomed character and a tragic figure who walks through life and approaches his choices without feeling remorse. It isn't that he is insane, but that his humanity was traded in for his gift of smell from the moment he was born.
Director Tom Tykwer would have benefited by exploring this quandary on a deeper level, as Jean-Baptiste is in almost every scene but is emotionally distant to the viewer. Without caring about himno fault of fresh actor Ben Whishaw (2004's "Layer Cake"), who is quite good as antihero Jean-Baptistethe movie is better when looked at from a stylistic and sensory vantage point. The cinematography by Frank Griebe is luscious and transformative within the 1700s period it is set, and the pulsating music score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (2005's "The Cave
") keeps the intrigue flowing even when the pacing meanders. Tykwer treats his central conceitthat of a killer out to literally bottle the one-of-a-kind scents of womenas if it were plausible, and embraces the power of suggestion over graphic exploitation. A critical sequence in which Jean-Baptiste follows a sweet-smelling plum girl (Karoline Herfurth) on the streets of Paris before taking her life and, this being his first victim, clumsily trying to ingrain her scent into his memory, is especially haunting.
The plum girl, whose death follows Jean-Baptiste wherever he goes, is a memorable symbolic figureshe is the catalyst for all that followsso it is a shame the same level of care wasn't provided to Laura. Following a compelling and detailed first hour that gives snippets of Jean-Baptiste's childhood before taking him to the doorstep of Giuseppe and exploring his initial dips into murder, the movie slows to a crawl in a series of repetitive montages where more and more corpses are found. For a time, Laura and protective father Antoine become the leads, but their fleeting scenes disallow for a proper connection to be made. They are half-formed characters, nothing but, and take away from Jean-Baptiste's proper development.
The final fifteen minutes of "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is where the film will make or break audience reaction. Without giving what happens away, it is safe to say that the movie takes a sharp right turn toward a conclusion that is equal parts courageous, ingenious and silly. Had a riper bond been formed between Jean-Baptiste and the viewer, the ending would have been an absolute stunner, conceptually as well as dramatically. Director Tom Tykwer doesn't quite pull off that sort of response, but there is no denying that he takes a chance and succeeds far more than he probably should. An ambitious takeoff on something the Brothers Grimm could have written, the climax is magical and melancholy all at once, breaching the unexpected and going out on a high note. A clearer examination of what makes Jean-Baptiste tick would have helped the emotional content of the piece, but like the title fragrance, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is difficult to resist even when its allure is only surface-deep.