Looking back at my history with Perfume: The Story of a Murderer started about as well as it did for everyone in the United States, with a “huh”? I can remember seeing the little screen number placard at the theater and being intrigued by the title, but like most everyone else in this country never got around to seeing it. I think I saw that Perfume was by the director of Run Lola Run, which isn’t a big sell for me, but I did try and see it only to find it was absent from any and all theaters a mere week later. Coming out just after Christmas, Perfume was lost in the holiday shuffle as it slowly rolled out and recessed to a paltry 2.2 million dollars and seemed to have been mostly forgotten or dismissed by many film fans. Not seeing this beautiful and incredible picture in the theaters is one of my biggest film going regrets.
Tom Tykwer’s film is based off an acclaimed novel of the same name (which I’ve never read) and it plays sort of like a superhero origin story, only it’s focused on one of the villains. Overcoming adversity as a child (an understatement) we watch our protagonist, Jean-Babtiste Grenouille, develop his super powers over his young life before sending him down a path of darkness as he tries to perfect his ability. Jean-Babtiste’s super power is his scent and the goal of his journey becomes to create the perfect scent, in the form of a perfume.
Finally getting to see Perfume was quite the experience, as it’s quite unique and excels at just about everything that it is trying to do. The film’s period setting, 18th century France, is grungily recreated in the film when in Paris, but beautifully captured when Jean-Babtiste heads out to the countryside. The cinematography is some of the most lush and beautiful thrown up on the screen over the last decade and it is a shame Frank Griebe hasn’t done much beyond Tykwer’s filmography. The film’s visual style really helps it to stand out when you see it and I am not the first person to celebrate the film’s ability to visual the sense of smell. Tykwer practically puts you inside Jean-Babtiste’s nose and you feel what he feels as he discovers more and more new scents throughout the film.
Ben Whishaw deserves a ton of credit as well for Perfume’s success, as he gives an incredibly unsettling portrayal of Jean-Babtiste. Quietly lurking in the shadows, the dead eyed look he gives never lets you get comfortable and this pays off in spades as the film ramp towards its finally. Just being associated with Jean-Babtiste leads to your death for half of the film, but in his quest to create that perfect scent finally pushes the film to live up to its title.
Tykwer also keeps the film moving along at a clip as he and his team pumps out one amazing sequence after another. There are so many memorable sequences throughout the film and it’s a shame more people don’t remember them. Birth in a fish market, first time in Paris/the plum girl, making perfume from scent, experimenting with flowers, collecting the 13 of Grasse, a stay of execution and a devouring end all immediately stick out, but there is barely a moment to breathe as you move from set piece to set piece. The eventual method Jean-Babtiste creates to capture a human’s scent is just as unforgettable, it’s incredibly creepy, but the imagery is equally beautiful.
An under seen classic, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is not only an original and unique story but a wonderful bit of filmmaking. Tom Tykwer is operating at the height of his abilities and it’s a gem of a film that was lost to American audiences. The time for its rediscovery should be now.