Perfume: The Story of a Murderer begins in a prison cell. Alone in the shadows, young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) awaits his fate, that is, execution, as he is the murderer of the film’s title. When guards escort him roughly to the open-air gallows, the crowd cheers, both enthusiastic and repulsed. Grenouille remains impassive, looking at once fragile and resolute, described by the film’s narrator (John Hurt) as “one of the most gifted and abominable personages of his day.” Grenouille appears strange and utterly ordinary, an embodiment of his era’s excessive, narcissistic desire.
Tom Tykwer’s film, adapted from Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, goes on to detail that desire, beginning with the moment of Grenouille’s birth in a filthy Parisian fish market, circa 1783, where, the narrator observes, “there reigned a stench barely conceivable” to us. The boy’s mother is a horror too, a vendor who goes into labor at her stand (“the most putrid spot in the kingdom”), drops to her knees and delivers the child. Within minutes, the child is nearly lost among the rest of the day’s detritus, just so much garbage until he determines to survive, crying out amid pig guts, rats, and maggots, persisting despite his mama’s belief he is dead and so, her inadvertent efforts to murder him. (She is soon executed for being so very bad a mother, while he orphaned and oh yes, learns an object lesson).
Thus born into abjection, the child is extra-doomed by his particular gift, an acute and relentless sense of smell, termed here an especial appreciation of “the fleeting realm of scent.” The set-up doesn’t exactly motivate or explain what comes after, namely, Grenouille’s grisly pursuit of perfection in the form of smell, but it does provide the novel/film’s primary point, the use of words and images to indicate smell.
It’s a good trick, translating one sensory experience into the terms of another, maybe even a too-clever, self-absorbed kind of exercise. But where the novel is darkly, obviously sarcastic, the film is just obvious. Extending the story of appropriation beyond formal concerns, it reveals and seems to revel in the immorality and ugliness of such self-absorption. For Grenouille is part artist, part scientist, and part monster, an apparently odorless individual who yearns to capture what he understands to be beauty, to distill and possess the perfect scent.
That Grenouille is also utterly symptomatic — that is, not an individual so much as a representative of what ails his cultural milieu — is hardly news. Indeed, his perfect scent is to be drawn from that most commonplace of victims, beautiful women. Emerging from an orphanage-workhouse to pursue his fortune, Grenouille discovers his seemingly sensational calling, seemingly by accident. Attracted by a girl carrying plums (Karoline Herfurth), he follows her into an alley, the camera close on her neck to indicate the spot that so profoundly attracts him by its smell.
In the dark, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Grenouille doesn’t anticipate his own effect, his efforts to be even closer to the girl resulting in her sudden death, her pale face a mask of incipient fear. He then finds in her corpse something like the prefect smell. With distressingly close, mobile frames showing her pale belly and dead nipples — along with Grenouille’s yuckily shallow breathing — the scene indicates his sexual pleasure. Now you know: the killer’s subsequent efforts to repeat this experience emerge from a particularly grim onanistic longing.
Uncaught following this first murder, Grenouille gets a job that will train him in the art of “keeping” a scent. Accurate beyond measure when it comes to knowing smells, he impresses a has-been perfume maker, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, whose “Italian” accent is a terrible joke: “Basta!,” he repeats on several occasions, a sentiment you begin to share). The scene where he shows his ability runs like a game, as Grenouille names scents with a near comic speed and efficiency, Baldini’s eyes wider with each right answer.
From his new master, Grenouille learns how to condense aromas, a mechanical process he then applies to his own recipe, combining the essences of 12 virgins and a prostitute. Following an unfortunate incident that demonstrates the student’s mania and social ineptitude — again — Genrouille moves to Grasse (“the promised land of perfume”). Here, according to his narrator, he sees the women’s necessary deaths as incidental: he treats the bodies with animal fat, scrapes off the then-odorous waxiness, and cooks it down into a teeny vial’s worth of perfume, none of the many he collects quite the total concoction he seeks. As the corpses left over from his experiments accumulate in the streets, locals feel requisite alarm.
With this, a seeming rivalry is established, for a minute. Almost as soon as the wealthy amateur sleuth Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) begins to wonder about the mind of the criminal, his own daughter, the milky-complexioned Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), becomes Grenouille’s ideal, ostensibly final object. It’s not a little unnerving that this object is sensationally redheaded, like a pre-punk Lola (still Tykwer’s most famous elusive female character), and moreover, that she is subjected to terrible abuse, despite and probably because of her father’s watchfulness. Frequently posed in windows or doorframes, at one point scared by shadows she sees in a hedge maze, at others headstrong and spunky, she’s just the sort of romantic girl victim that makes movie monsters’ hearts go pit-a-pat.
But Perfume abandons this last girl in favor of its own fixation, the terminally banal Grenouille. Even as the film invites your sympathy for him, or at least some interest, he retreats into bland predictability, perhaps especially during the sex orgy that serves as the film’s sensational but oddly unmoving set piece. Grenouille’s obsession is, in the end, much like that of the less ornately literary killers who precede him, producing desperately conventional spectacles of dead girls.