You’ve heard of snuff films? The latest from German director Tom (“Run Lola Run”) Tykwer may well be the world’s first sniff film. Never before has the sense of smell played as central a role in a work of cinema. Certainly no motion picture has come even remotely as close to translating aroma into word and image.
Based on the critically acclaimed 1985 novel by Patrick Suskind, “Perfume” offers the variously comic, grisly and visionary story of a gifted sociopath by the name of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. The character is played by Ben Whishaw, the young actor who portrayed Keith Richards in last year’s “Stoned.” Here he stars as an entirely different sort of artist, one whose nose rather than his ear is exceptionally developed.
The film is set in 18th Century France. It begins with Grenouille’s birth in perhaps the foulest place on the face of the earth–the stench-ridden fish markets of Paris. He does not learn to speak until he has already learned the scent of every individual thing in his environment. Scent is his natural language, the world’s smells his vocabulary. As he eventually discovers once he does begin to speak, words are comparatively pathetic inventions barely capable of suggesting the olfactory universe much less reproducing it.
The young man undergoes a life-changing experience upon his first trip into the city. A utopia of novel aromas greets him and, for the first time in his miserable existence, virtually all of them are pleasing. Like a starving man who has arrived at a sumptuous banquet, he gorges on them–the smells from streetside cafes, the flower stalls and cheese markets, the scent of linens and silks, the powder from wigs, the odor of pampered lap dogs and immaculate carriage horses, even the small cathedral of a fashionable perfume shop. Of all the aromas that intoxicate him, however, the most potent is, you guessed it, the scent of a woman.
Exposed for the first time to the aroma of a beautiful young female not covered in fish slime, Grenouille is transported and helplessly trails a particularly redolent creature down a series of alleyways until she realizes she is being stalked, starts to scream and is accidentally smothered to death when Grenouille panics and places his hand over her face. What follows is a remarkable scene.
In a lot of serial killer movies, this is where things would get icky but the fellow isn’t interested in sex. Over and over he runs his hands along the woman’s body and brings them up to his face inhaling blissfully. He did not mean to kill her but, to him, the tragedy is not her death but the fact that he has no way to keep her smell. In this moment he realizes his life’s destiny: to “learn how to preserve scent so that never again would he lose such sublime beauty.”
Dustin Hoffman is marvelous as the has-been perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, who takes the young man in and teaches him the secrets of the trade. The twenty or so minutes he and Whishaw share on screen are worth the price of admission by themselves. With the help of Grenouilles’s instinctive genius for mixing elements to create heavenly scents, the old man’s shop becomes the toast of Paris society. With Baldini’s help, the young man learns just enough to realize that fulfilling his dream will require a move to Grasse, the country’s perfume capital and the only place where he can learn a mysterious technique known as enflorage.
Once there he gradually innovates a process for preserving the essences of debutantes, prostitutes, nuns and farmgirls whose murders he commits almost incidentally. In time it becomes clear he plans to blend them into a scent of such narcotic loveliness anyone who catches a whiff of it will immediately succumb to indescribable euphoria. Most perfume formulas, we learn, combine twelve “notes,” four comprising the “head chord,” four the “heart chord” and four the “base chord.” Baldini at one point relates the legend of an Egyptian scent which incorporated a vital thirteenth note and was so powerful that the day it was unveiled, every person on earth believed they were in paradise. The final third of the film concerns Grenouille’s pursuit of the elusive thirteenth note in his formula, a luminous young aristocrat played by Rachel Hurd-Wood.
Tykwer makes of all this murder and madness a concoction of improbable beauty and rare artistry. “Perfume” is not just the finest film of his career but easily one of the past year’s most accomplished. It isn’t every movie of which a critic can say the viewer is certain to find it one-of-a-kind and guaranteed to be caught off guard by the final act. But those assurances may be made in this case without a second’s hesitation. The director’s recreation of pre-Revolutionary France is lavishly imaginative, the cinematography is flawless and the score otherworldly. Of course, we’ve seen proficiently crafted pictures set in the same period and place before. What sets this one apart are the inspired source material (Suskind’s novel is the second largest selling book in German history), top-of-their-game work from an unusually talented cast which also includes Alan Rickman as Hurd-Wood’s protective father and the immense success the filmmakers met with in their efforts to convey the world of smell through an alchemy of visuals, words and music. It’s never been done before and simply has to be seen to be believed.