Movie review: 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer'

2 stars (out of four)

A film can reek equally of fine craftsmanship and piping-hot dung, and the proof's in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." Beautifully appointed 18th Century serial-killer trash, it is based on the 1985 international bestseller by Patrick Sueskind ("Das Parfum" in the original German) about a feral product of the Paris slums, whose superhuman sense of smell leads him to a life obsessed with capturing scent.

The "international bestseller" part of Sueskind's publishing phenom relates entirely to the "serial killer" part. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille lives for the whiff of women and murders many of them to get it. He does not sexually violate his victims, though, so we're meant to take him as an aesthetically pure artiste, committed to a gruesome lifelong objet d'art project.

Grenouille has been softened for the film version (there's no "Timon of Athens"-like interlude, for example, when the young man becomes a cave-dwelling subhuman). The softening makes "Perfume" the film even more morally dubious than "Perfume" the novel.

Ben Whishaw plays him as a calmly psychopathic cipher. Having survived a miserable birth at the feet--literally--of a Parisian fishmonger, the adult Grenouille accidentally strangles a comely street vendor who has hypnotized the wretch with her aroma. Grenouille's superlative nose makes him invaluable to the once-great perfume master Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), whose career he revives.

Then he relocates to Provence, where dead bodies soon begin piling up and, in an incestuous panic, the leading citizen of the region (Alan Rickman, delivering no more than is absolutely required) squirrels his intoxicating daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) out of harm's way. But you never can shake these monomaniacal serial murderers.

In the first hour of this near-two-and-a-half-hour enterprise, director Tom Tykwer, who made the fabulously kinetic "Run Lola Run," juices things so artfully you think he's going to pull the whole thing off. Certainly, the elegantly decrepit voice of John Hurt was an apt choice for narration. Tykwer and editor Alex Berner find clever ways of visualizing Grenouille's scent-catching; in three or four seconds of screen time, for example, they show us Grenouille smelling a rat and then take their camera to the interior of the rat's stomach, revealing the scurrying maggots within. It happens almost subliminally, so that the yuck factor is mitigated by the "nice technique!" factor.

All of which can take a florid crime story only so far. As the killing begins it's clear Tykwer's priorities included getting the light just so in closeups of our antihero scraping greasy animal fat off a corpse's naked breast. (Happy New Year.)

For years Sueskind resisted selling the screen rights to "Perfume," and even co-wrote a film, "Rossini," about a reclusive writer whose bestseller becomes a hot screen property. (It was directed and co-written by Helmut Dietl, whose Hitler diary forgery satire "Schtonk!" is well worth seeing. If you can find it.) Two decades after publication the novel, deftly translated by John E. Woods, has pretty much lost its air of classy depravity and the film is unlikely to restore its cachet.

By now audiences have witnessed so many serial murders in so many serial-killer fairy tales, from "The Silence of the Lambs" on through "CSI: Waukegan," that not even a director as proficient as Tykwer can make it worth two sniffs. By the time "Perfume" arrives at its ridiculous mass orgy, staged at the gallows where Grenouille is supposed to meet his end, you really would rather see him meet his end than endure a ridiculous mass orgy.


'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer'

Directed by Tom Tykwer; screenplay by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tykwer, based on Patrick Sueskind's novel; cinematography by Frank Griebe; edited by Alex Berner; production design by Uli Hanisch; music by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil; produced by Eichinger. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:25. MPAA rating: R (for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality and disturbing images).

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille - Ben Whishaw

Giuseppe Baldini - Dustin Hoffman

Richis - Alan Rickman

Laura - Rachel Hurd-Wood

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • year's best movies

    Read the Fast-Paised Top 10 of 2006. Video: Pais' Top 10 Plus: Year's 10 worst

  • this week's movies

  • Make a night of it

    Find: • Recommended dining • Recommended bars