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Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) 

Directed by: Tom Tykwer

Premise: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a Frenchman with a highly advanced sense of smell, works his way up from the dregs of 18th century French society to become a master perfume maker. As he searches for the perfect scent, Jean-Baptiste grows increasingly obsessive and murders women to capture their scent.

What Works: Perfume is a tall tale, and is very similar to the contemporary urban legend of the cannibalistic sausage maker used as a basis for the musical Sweeney Todd. The story is a fusion of a love story, a period piece, a black comedy, and a serial killer film, and Perfume manages to make these genre elements work together in a flawless composite. The characterization of Jean-Baptiste is extraordinary, a portrayal of a sociopath who is cursed with a gift and unable to function within any acceptable social context. Whishaw’s performance is great, especially considering how much screen time he is given but how little dialogue he has to convey character. Instead, Jean-Baptiste’s psychosis is played out largely through movement and nuance. Like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, it is a subtle performance that is worth studying closely. The production design of Perfume is also well done. The sets have a great look and the cinematography picks up on the textures and rawness of life, using the visuals to create an impression of olfactory sensation. This is high cinematic craft and director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) shows a mastery of the form. Also, like The Matrix trilogy, Perfume is a great example of film taking on philosophical ideas and using them in a narrative to create deeper texture and complicate character and plot. In this case, the film is focused on Aristotelian and Platonic ideas about the body and the senses, and how they may overwhelm our better judgment.

What Doesn’t: Although Perfume combines the love story, period piece, black comedy, and serial killer genres, it is not easily recognizable as any one of these things. While this is generally to the film’s benefit, some viewers might be thrown off trying to comprehend what they are seeing.

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is an extraordinary film. It is smart and sexy and includes one of the most memorable onscreen psychotics since Hannibal Lecter. The will be especially enjoyed by those who found Quills worthwhile, since the story has a strong Marquis de Sade quality to it. 

Episode: #152 (August 12, 2007)