Most of you have probably seen, by now, the lobby poster for “Perfume” hanging in the local theater at some point. It’s one of the classiest posters of the year, a basic black-and-white shot of a beautiful woman being “scattered” into wind-blown red rose petals. Simple, elegant and subtle. The best way to imagine what “Perfume” is actually like as a movie is to stare really, really hard at that poster and try to imagine it’s polar-opposite. This film, courtesy “Run Lola Run” helmer Tom Tykwer, is not subtle, simple, elegant or any other phrase that good be used to describe it’s one-sheet or the notion of “tasteful” in general: It’s schlock.” High camp. Pure, unadulterated nonsense; an icky-for-ickiness’-sake wallow in the oceans of insta-shock produced by juxtaposing period costume-drama with serial-murder and sexual-perversion…
…so I loved it.
In final analysis, “Perfume” is a textbook entry in the curiously large sub-genre of horror/exploitation films that fuse wig-and-feather period drama or upscale/Euro settings in general with copious gore and sex. It’s a diverse swath of work, encompassing everything from Jess Franco’s arty lesbian vampire cycle to Walerian Borowczyk’s “The Beast” to huge chunks of Italian “giallo” auteurs and Fellini imitators… all the way up to prominent modern examples like Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” or Christophe Gans’ “Brotherhood of The Wolf.” As arthouse-slashers go, “Perfume” settles in nicely with some fairly distinguished brethren.
Based on a novel thought to be “unfilmmable,” “Perfume” is best-described as a longform “origin story” for a comic book supervillian cruelly plunked down in eighteenth century France instead of Gotham City; as Jean-Batiste Grenouille (newcomer Ben Wishaw,) lacks only a stylish nickname (“The Nose” would work) in terms of characteristics which would make him a more suitable adversary for Batman or Dick Tracy than the clueless investigators he battles here.
In other words, he’s an amoral psychopath with a Super Power; in this case a sense of smell so precise it allows him to deduce chemical formulas just by instinct, track anything over great distances, detect attacks without looking, etc. It also, of course, forms the theme of his crimes: Stalking and murdering the young women of “The Perfume Capitol of France” so he can boil their bodies down and make perfume from their “souls.” (No, really.) He also, strangely, lacks a scent of his own, which comes in handy for sneaking up on victims.
Born in wretched poverty, Grenouille hones his craft as a professional perfumer under Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, way too acutely aware of what sort of film he’s actually appearing in,) who’s willing to ignore the boy’s obvious insanity in exchange for the fortune his formulas bring. But Grenouille is only interested in learning a technique that’ll allow him to preserve the scent of individual humans, a drive which leads him to a perfumer’s paradise and to the above-described murder spree. Aiming to stop him at all costs is Alan Rickman (more subdued than he’s been in awhile) as the father of the town’s most beautiful and thus most-likely-to-be-victimized young woman.
Tykwer is, demonstrably, aware of the sort of film he’s got on his hands and lets it play out largely unhigned. The relative bloodlessness of Grenouille’s kills aren’t exactly an inhibitor.. he packs the film with sick, creepy visuals to literalize the effects of super-smell on it’s user, and he knows when to go for broke: The gotta-see-it-to-believe-it finale is one of the most insane things ever put on screen, period. He’s also not afraid to let the story descend into outright farce when it needs to, we are after all talking about a movie about a serial-killer perfumer.
Trust me, it’s been a long time since you saw something this nuts in a theatre. That alone should be reason for the curious to seek it out. You won’t see another murder movie this year like it, and Act Three is one for the books. Recomended.
FINAL RATING: 8/10