Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer
The hell with Polyester. If ever a movie needed its own scratch and sniff card, itís Perfume. How else to understand fully Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a man blessed with a superhuman sense of smell? He was baptized by stench when his mother squatted him out onto the chum-strewn floor of a Paris fishmongerís stall. By the age of five he hasnít yet learned to speak, but his exquisitely sensitive nose eagerly unfolds the worldís olfactory inventory, whether pleasant (fresh apples, clean lace) or unpleasant (a rat writhing with maggots like a vermin piŮata). You know the day he discovers real perfume itís all over.
Hamstrung by the limits of a visual medium, you strain to suck in Jean-Baptisteís intoxicating world through insufficient optic nerves, a task facilitated as best as possible by director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). As his camera coasts past murky water, parchment, oysters, leather, and amethyst fields of lavender, the crisp cinematography and impressionistic editing conjures a real synesthetic experience. It would be enough to accompany the gaunt and unvoluptuary Jean-Baptiste through his much-deserved apprenticeship to a master perfumer (Dustin Hoffman). But things get weird quickly when the emotionally stunted young man hounds a delicately scented fruit seller, suffocates her, strips her naked, and runs his nose over every inch of her still-warm skin. This creepy act of olfactory rape is irrevocably jarring, alienating us from Jean-Baptiste permanently. And once he decides to devote his life to encapsulating the smell of warm female in a bottle, thatís when the fun stops dead.
A perfume is constructed of three cascading parts: the head (the first impression, quickest to fade), the heart (the scentís main theme), and the base (the deepest, richest, most indelible note--usually extracted from animal essences like civet or ambergris that are nauseating at full strength but pleasant when infinitesimally diluted). Thereís nothing wrong with Perfumeís head, consisting of funky delight in the worldís redolence, small sparkling performances from Hoffman and Alan Rickman, and a winking black wit. Its heartís even better, acknowledging the ephemeral and profound power of scent and its stealthy ability to bypass the rational brain and envelop us in ecstatic experience. But the shameless misogyny forming its base overpowers all the other ingredients. As the body count of sexualized corpses increases--an indignity sharpened by the hypocrisy of staying above the navel to clear an R rating--Perfume starts to resemble an olfactory Peeping Tom minus the intellectual chops necessary to back up its atrocities. Itís a shame the rancid undertone of lowest common denominator slasher porn overwhelms all its other redeeming qualities. Ask any perfumer--youíve got to dilute the base. Otherwise youíre just going to make everyone sick.