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Germany/France/Spain 2006
Directed by
Tom Tykwer
142 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

Synopsis:  It's Paris in 1738. Jean Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw) is born at the fishmarke, and after surviving his mother’s attempts to kill him, a brutal orphanage and grisly work in a tannery, realises that he has a distinct gift – an extraordinary sense of smell. He decides he needs to harvest every scent in the world, especially that of beautiful young women. Driven by his obsession he apprentices himself to the once eminent  perfumier Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), but his efforts to distil the scents he most covets leads him on a more bizarre trail. As young women begin to disappear, the final one in his firing line is Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the beautiful daughter of wealthy merchant Richis (Alan Rickman).

The novel Perfume by Patrick Susskind was considered unfilmable because of its reliance upon the vivid verbal descriptions of Grenouille’s olfactory world. Yet there are so many repugnant images, especially of the disgusting filth in the fish market, that our noses are soon crinkling from numerous off-putting and carefully crafted minute details of filthy fingernails and rotting teeth.

This is certainly a very different film for director Tykwer who made his reputation with the clever Run Lola Run. His research into 18th century France has obviously been thorough, as the look of the film is impressive, with particular detail paid to the street life and the contrasting look of the poor and the wealthy whilst the gruesome tannery in which Grenouille spends his sorry youth is also powerfully rendered.  The insight into the perfume industry is especially fascinating as we learn details of the various techniques, particularly enfleurage, in which odourless fats or oils are used to absorb the fragrance of fresh flowers. Of course the way in which Grenouille adapts this technique is much more gruesome than could have been imagined It also intrigued me to hear of the contemporary theory of perfumes, with their head, heart and bass “chords”.

Ben Wishaw carries his role well, being on screen virtually for the entire film.  Although his character’s deeds are evil, his portrayal of Grenouille makes us feel some sort of weird empathy with this lonely outsider, desperate to create the scent that will make people love him.  The inimitable Dustin Hoffman is, as always, the consummate actor who inhabits his role of the now-faded perfume master who takes on the aspiring young protégé. Alan Rickman exudes his usual charismatic aura as the over-protective father, while all the young women carry their small parts well, being as they are, merely representations of something greater that the main protagonist desires.

The story is interesting philosophically, being about such an amoral character, who is at once repugnant and yet fascinating. There’s almost a religiosity to the way in which Grenouille approaches his bizarre rituals. However, towards its conclusion the film takes a rather strange turn which perhaps would have been more easily understood from the novel, which I have not read. Nevertheless the voice-over narration (by a very recognizable John Hurt) does attempt to put an interpretation on the strange happenings. Although I was not entirely convinced, this is a film that intrigues and for anyone who want to give themselves up to a unusual experience, one worth seeing.




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