(DreamWorks) Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt (voice), Sam Douglas, Karoline Herfurth. Directed by Tom Tykwer
Obsessions are destructive. They can lead us into temptation, directly into harm’s way, into the path of a freaking school bus. Obsession is the madness that whispers to us in the night, promising all manner of pleasures but in the end delivering only sackcloth and ashes.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born to a fishwife, a woman who paused only a moment to allow her birthing to slip out of her into the pile of fishguts and offal that lay below her stand at the fish market in 18th century Paris before resuming her chopping of cod.
Through a rather charmless set of circumstances the young Grenouille winds up an orphan, but he’s not just any kid. He has a marvelously developed sense of smell, able to distinguish the most subtle of fragrances from miles away. Somewhat ironically, he also has no scent of his own, which further creates the impressions among those who live with him that there’s something sinister about young Grenouille…and they’re right.
He goes to work for a tanner and finds himself luxuriating in the rich smells, the stink that is Paris. Grenouille yearns to have a scent of his own, one that will fill people with such longing and desire that they won’t be able to help themselves; they must love him. One evening while delivering some hides in the city, he encounters a young girl selling plums (Herfurth) and becomes intoxicated by her smell. He is so entranced that he can’t bear to be away from her. She, quite understandably, thinks he’s a lunatic stalker and is terrified of him. He tries to muffle her screams and winds up smothering the life from her. As she dies, her scent dissipates driving Grenouille nearly mad with frustration. However, he manages to slip away before being discovered.
Some nights later he delivers some hides to a perfumer named Baldini (Hoffman) who’s seen better days. To Hoffman’s astonishment, Grenouille turns out to have the best nose of any man he’s ever met; he merely lacks the education to become a great perfumer on his own. Hoffman arranges to buy Grenouille’s contract from the tanner and Grenouille becomes his apprentice.
Baldini teaches him most of what Grenouille needs to know to distill perfume on his own; in return, Grenouille gives Baldini enough perfume formulas to make Baldini rich for many years to come (although it doesn’t turn out that way). Grenouille then makes his way to Grasse, the center of the French perfume industry. There he becomes enamored of a young girl (Hurd-Wood) whose father (Rickman) suspects that there is a serial killer in their midst.
That’s because there is; Grenouille has embarked on a twisted, vicious plan to distill the essence of beauty and for that he will need beautiful young girls who unfortunately must die in order for their essence to be properly extracted. He needs 13 of them and the young girl will be his 13th; can he be stopped before he finishes his plan?
This is based on the excellent Patrick Susskind novel “Parfum” which the novelist thought unfilmable; even though producer Bernd Eichenger is a personal friend of the author, he was reluctant to give the film rights to anybody, even his friend. However, German wunderkind director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) is just the man to undertake such a venture.
What we get is something of a mixed bag. This is in many ways an unpleasant film to watch; Tykwer not only captures the squalor of 18th century Paris, he wallows in it as he does in the twisted desires of the protagonist. To a very real degree I felt grimy after watching this to the point where I felt an urge to take a shower.
However, that does not a bad film make. Whishaw, who is appealing in Bright Star, has a very unlovable character here, and yet he makes him compelling. He gets fine support from Rickman and Hoffman, whose crucial but relatively small role lights up the movie for the short time he’s in it.
Tykwer does a yeoman job in re-creating the 18th century France, both the rural Grasse and the urban Paris. He also carries out the near impossible – making a movie that is very largely about fragrance, a sense that cinema doesn’t utilize, and making it work. It can be hard to watch in places, particularly some of the later scenes, but for the most part this is a unique, compelling work that is different enough to be worth your checking out.
WHY RENT THIS: The film captures the squalor of 18th century France very nicely. It is certainly different than most of the thrillers you’ll see.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very, very twisted and difficult to watch in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, mayhem, gore, a whole lot of nudity and some truly shocking and revolting images. Parents, keep your kids away from this DVD!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Paris, the movie was filmed in Barcelona which the producers felt looked much more like 18th century France.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Despicable Me
I’m interested but also reluctant to see this film, since I recently read the book (& reviewed it on my page, if you’re interested in comparing the two). I’d certainly have thought it unfilmable, but reading this and from what else I’ve heard, it sounds like Tykwer has done it justice. I think you’ve convinced me to give it a shot!