'Perfume' Hits Horror on the Nose

Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Runtime: 147 minutes
Grade: A

Try to imagine smell -- not necessarily the image of food, cloth, or wood that accompanies a particular scent, but the actual olfactory sense flying through the wind. Though any sensory element is tough to capture on film, Tom Tykwer has given us a wonderfully dark and emotionally twisted horror film in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that harnesses one of the most difficult to imagine. To say the least, the director of the electrically charged Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) has meticulously crafted an adaptation of Patrick Süskind's novel, "Das Parfum", that's packed with mesmerizing tension.

Narrated by Alien and V for Vendetta star John Hurt, Perfume drops us into a raunchy, grimy puddle within a crumbling market in 18th Century France. Orphaned and abandoned at birth, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) shuffles to and fro between "owners" as a slave, stumbling along and learning whatever inklings about human nature he possibly can without a speckle of guidance. The one thing he does discover, and harness, is an insurmountably potent sense of smell that can absorb the rich scents of the world to endless bounds.

From the decadent aroma of flowers and vegetation to the obscure taste of wet, molding stone and rotting flesh, nothing escapes Jean-Baptiste's nose. A "power" like his, even in his dilapidated surroundings, eventually has to surface. Lending fuel to his innate fire, an aging perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) discovers the young boy and his capacity to isolate smell. Baldini doesn't know about the unsavory desire for scent preservation that begins to rapidly unfurl with Jean-Baptiste's education -- and the boy's crumbling, brazen sanity building within his growing desire for women.

An intriguing, humorous anti-development story about an unguided youth very quickly evolves into something close to a tense nightmare, as Perfume shifts tones at this point from being dark with a dash of humor to purely macabre horror. What makes Tykwer's film so haunting isn't just the way he harnesses smell on screen, but his manipulation of the olfactory sense itself. As humans, we rely on scent as somewhat of a pleasure organ. From picking up fluttering scents escaping food to the undeniable rage of erotic flavor, he keeps us fully aware of the nose as a way to grasp unbridled wonder from the world.

Does Ben Whishaw, a young, skinny actor with few claims to his name, make a compelling anti-hero in Jean-Baptiste as he sniffs his way into becoming a oddly-motivated murderer? Unquestionably. Watching him absorb the mucky, expansive world around him repeatedly embraces the aura of a snake "tasting" the world through its quivering tongue. Along with purely nailing down creepy, he makes being unnerved a load of fun. There are small twinkles in his aromatic eyes that reflect innocent disparity with an uncontrollable glisten of vigor. And it all works wonderfully inside his quiet, unaware personality to give him discomforting menace. Whishaw has risen to the occasion in several other performances, namely in Brideshead Revisited, but his portrayal of Jean-Baptiste lingers enough to remind of its potency with each of the actor's roles. It wouldn't be unreasonable to chalk up Jean-Baptiste as one of the more unique, oddly disturbing villains from the past ten years of cinema, as his incensed quaffs and brashly lurid nature offer a compelling -- and violently unsettling -- entity to absorb.

Several other quirky, well-fleshed performances are what help to smooth out Perfume's unyielding vigor, counterbalancing the bleakness with plenty of demented humor and sublime theatrics. This is an aggressive tale that could've wobbled a bit along a non-watchable brink with the wrong cast; instead, Tykwer has made several very wise casting choices, two in particular. It's within Dustin Hoffman as Baldini and Alan Rickman as a father to one of Jean-Baptiste "interests" that an enjoyable radiance exists which counterbalances the film's shadowy weight. Tremendous dramatic quality exists in both, the only couth male presences in the film; however, their naturally playful auras give their characters a luster akin to coins glistening in the middle of those French mud puddles.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is an intriguing type of grotesque tale, one that aims to grapple more visceral audiences with its gratuity while also entrancing more discerning crowds with a rich story densely embedded in its iconic 18th Century French setting. Seamless in dramatic transition and carrying a fluent grace in visual style, it also has every dirty staple and grotesque stitch impeccably placed. Flowing through this terrarium of olfactory terror can really knock someone back with plain filthy detail, while watching this editing style that grasps the swollen, primitive dilapidation underneath civilization harks to a Requiem for a Dream style of sporadic snippets. They seem to harness these sensations just long enough for us to process and dispose them, leaving nothing more than the lingering thought of what might have been seen.

Tykwer then poises us into a surreal, uncomfortable twist between scent's eroticism and an underdeveloped passion raging within Jean-Baptiste. His unbridled nature, how it develops in many of the ways that our own passion develops at that age, build the tension naturally and, in ways, familiarly as we watch him develop. It's impressive how Tykwer accomplishes such discomfort in concocting a thoroughly discombobulating mindspace around the picture, all while allowing his audience to soak in these swirling eccentricities to a near-visceral level. Perfume's natural tension and ability to exploit its unique way of projecting aromatic elements transform this into a whopper of a hybrid picture that's evocative, horrific, and quite humorous as it churns deeper and deeper into the audience's psyche. Let all the scents of this unusual tale seep into your nasal cavity, because it certainly earns its worth as a well-textured gothic thriller from first whiff to the final bold flavor.


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