Perfume is one of my favorite books, and it’s a great story. The movie almost lives up to the book, telling a fascinating tale of a man who lives in an olfactory world few of us are attuned to.
Follow Your Nose
R for aberrant behavior, nudity, violence, sexuality
Narrated by the avuncular voice of John Hurt, the story begins with the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is born among the fish heads of a filthy 18th-century Parisian market and quickly abandoned to the orphanage.
The story evolves through stages, each of which is fascinating. There is his childhood, where his sense of smell almost becomes a superpower, telling him exactly when another urchin is sneaking up behind him or throwing a rotten apple at his head.
Then he becomes a young man, a serf, working at a tannery before he discovers that there are people who work with scents for a living. With his knack for scents, Jean-Baptiste writes himself an apprenticeship with a perfumer in Paris. His behind-the-scenes sophistication makes the perfume shop the most celebrated in the city, but Jean-Baptiste outgrows even this. He heads south to Italy to study at the feet of the world’s masters of scentmaking.
In short, Jean-Baptiste is a fascinating character; one we haven’t seen before in literature or on film. And with John Hurt narrating his story, it’s very easy to sympathize with this olfactory savant.
But the subtitle of the movie is “The Story of a Murderer.”
It’s true, Jean-Baptiste killed a woman in Paris. She was a redhead who sold lemons, and he followed her, entranced by her scent. He must have seemed harmless enough to the woman — at least until he started touching her hair. When some constables approached, Jean-Baptiste kept her from screaming, and by the time they had passed, she was dead. He hovered over her corpse, drinking in her smell, not really understanding the difference between life and death until, in death, the woman started to stink.
It is Jean-Baptiste’s sociopathic naivete that makes his story so dark. He is such a passionate and brilliant man (in that one way) that we want to root for him. But his moral ignorance makes him more of a villain. The dichotomy is savory.
A detour on the way to Italy lets our protagonist breathe for a moment. He finds himself atop a hill, in a rocky cave: a place on this earth with almost no scent. He stops here for weeks, reveling in the sheer purity of the place.
But it is also here that the final chapter of Jean-Baptiste’s life is launched. It is here that he realizes he has no scent. Everyone else has a characteristic smell, but Jean-Baptiste, nothing. That is why he has never amounted to anything, why he has always been invisible to people. Granted, that’s why he survived as long as he did, but it also means that he doesn’t really have a place in this world.
So he continues to Italy, determined to force the world to take notice. He will make his own perfume, so powerful and yet so subtle that the world will bow at his feet. All he needs is an education, and some more redheaded lemon-sellers.
Justice to the Book (Almost)
The movie almost does justice to the story. Of course, no movie can capture every detail of a book, but the adaptation (by Andrew Birkin, Berndt Eichinger, and Tykwer) is very good, and Tykwer’s direction is excellent. Production Designer Uli Hanisch (The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven) also did an excellent job creating the cold, gray stone world of Paris
While we’re handing out praise, let’s remember the star, Ben Whishaw, who captures the humility and intensity of Jean-Baptiste. He walks bent, as though he has been beaten all his life. He is scrawny, as though you could look right through him. He is never handsome, always unkempt, too busy in the world of smell to be bothered with appearances. But the camera knows to look for him in a crowd, and we can spot that intense stare in a second.
There are some bigger-name actors in some smaller roles. Dustin Hoffman makes a distracting entrance as Baldini, the fading Paris perfumer, although he eventually grows on you. Alan Rickman has the opposite effect — seeming perfect as an Italian nobleman at first, and then becoming more of a distraction as the film proceeds.
Nevertheless, all though the film, I wondered whether the beloved ending, which is a bit mythical, would be true to the book. If so, how would Tykwer present the unreal-ness of the ending on film? (If anyone could do it, it should have been Tykwer, who directed Heaven, a movie with a mythical ending that literally spirals up into the sky.)
Unfortunately, the story’s penultimate ending requires a large crowd, and Tykwer failed to get a suitably trained mob. The grinning, hammy extras self-consciously play to the camera. What should have been unreal simply plays silly. Swooping cameras and the score try to add weight, but it’s simply not enough keep the image from looking ridiculous.
The actual ending, the more important one, brings the movie back on track, thanks again to Hurt’s narration and a simple no-tech camera trick. But that penultimate ending practically ruins the movie.