Sniff this ‘Perfume’

“Perfume” opens with a crowd of more than one thousand people calling for the torture and eventual death of single man who is shown locked up in an 18th century jail cell. From that point on the film is captivating, laying out step-by-step the reasons as to why so many people would be joyous over the demise of what appears to be a defenseless human being.

The first step in the actual process is the birth of the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by Ben Whishaw. From the moment he is born on a pile of fish intestines, Grenouille is an outsider and is considered to be the scum of the earth. As his mother leaves him to die, he begins to cry, alarming the townspeople to the mother’s crime. Shortly after, she is lynched and Grenouille discovers he is good at killing those around him.

But that isn’t all he learns from the experience. He additionally learns that he has heightened sense of smell. This so-called talent gives him something to live for and he passes his time by quizzing himself on smells and simply searching for the best smells around.

The search ultimately leads him to a female whose smell captivates him. But as discovered at birth, he is good at killing, and he murders the woman in order to experience her scent all the time. But anyone who knows anything about dead bodies, knows their scent changes rapidly. This sets in motion yet another search by Grenouille to find the ingredients to replicate the scent of the female he killed.

Grenouille doesn’t speak a single word of dialogue for the first half hour of the film. Normally this would be detrimental, as it doesn’t allow the viewer to get inside the head of the main character and see what makes them tick. But from early on, it is clear this is one character we don’t want to get inside the mind of. Essentially, Whishaw’s performance comes across as evoking a young Hannibal Lecter, only with a better sense of smell.

Watching the film could not be described as enjoyable. Although it contains a few scenes here and there that are genuinely funny, the rest is dark, grim and consistently disturbing. But as Grenouille continues his search to replicate the female’s scent by killing every woman he sets his sights on, it becomes harder and harder to look away. To stop watching would bring no closure to the viewer that Grenouille doesn’t escape the fate hinted at in the film’s beginning.

Another thing captivating about “Perfume” is just the simple fact that it is like nothing that has ever been made before. And while the plot is original, the film’s construction at the hands of director Tony Tykwer, is simply mesmerizing. I would imagine that if one of the directors from the “Saw” films had gotten ahold of the script for “Perfume,” the end result would have been drastically different. But Tykwer seems to realize the difference between pushing the audience’s boundaries for the sake of art and the “Saw” director’s belief that because you can push boundaries, you simply should.

“Perfume” ends up being one of those movies that is great to watch once, but hopefully never is brought up as a possible choice at a movie night with friends. It has a great cast, including Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, who all seem to recognize their place in the big scheme of things. But with Tykwer’s Tim Burton-like vision, and the amazing job done by Whishaw, the film is still as excellent as it is disturbing.

– Scott Hansen