Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

| November 16, 2006

How did a 1985 German gothic horror novel gain attention enough to warrant a film? That story, one that would reveal how German auteur Tom Twyker (of Run Lola Run) got involved, would be more interesting than the overly stylized urban fantasy that is Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Strictly as a period piece, Twyker gets some great shots of the good, bad, and ugly 18th-century France, but it is plagued by an inability to make us relate to anyone in the film, be it the vengeful father Richis (Alan Rickman), the doltish perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), or even our misunderstood serial killer, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw). (Then again, it’s hard to say “misunderstood”–he kills at least thirteen women in an effort to create a god-like perfume.)
Just as Twyker’s extreme close-ups and quick shots cannot actually capture the scent of what we are seeing, neither his camera nor his actors are capable of showing how a man goes so irredeemably bad. Plenty of children in that time were born amid reeking fish guts and subsequently abused in orphanages, and they didn’t grow up with a hyperactive nose or the ability for superhuman feats of murder. In the hands of a Burton, Jeunet, or Gilliam, the atmosphere might have convinced us of such absurd talents–but Twyker maintains a harsh reality, straight through the film’s cannibalistic orgy of an ending. In some ways, it resembles the religious art of the time–highly accurate depictions of impossible things. More often than not, Twyker is trapped trying to Hollywoodize some gruesome material.
Not that he’s given much help by the screenplay he devised with Andrew Berkin and Bernd Eichinger. An omniscient narrator, speaking in the lullaby tones of the detached, guides us from scene to scene. This storybook feel, coupled with bleak, Elfman-like music, clashes with the vibrant cinematography; it makes one want to skip the text in favor of the big, full-page illustrations. Again, it doesn’t help that Grenouille is a blank or that the supporting characters all die off too quickly to become more than extended cameos. Nor does it help that, for a fable, the film goes on for almost 150 minutes. This “Grimm” character study has been pulled off in American films like The Machinist where we could at least relate to the actor’s work. But Whishaw himself has no rapport with the camera, so we can’t even relate to the man within the murder.
For all the formula–the film even begins at the end, with Grenouille in jail–Twyker manages to make death look good. Our “hero’s” violation of his first kill is so alienating that it leaves a mark on the audience, and though the film’s orgy scene is more laughable than provocative, it’s something you don’t often see in the U.S. But ultimately, the book isn’t a good match for the screen (nor, I suspect, for a novel). The story doesn’t develop character: it just sets the pieces for an allegorical conclusion that more befits a short avant-garde college film than a major studio release. The rest is just watching a man kill, kill, and then kill some more, in lush, worshipful detail. It’s not quite a snuff film: it’s the world’s first sniff film.

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