Scent of a Woman

Perfume: The Story
of a Murderer
Dir. Tom Twyker; writ. Twyker, Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger (screenplay), Peter Süskind (novel, Das Parfum); feat. Ben Whisaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood (R)
Fie on those critics and commentators who took the below-the-belt bait and titled their reviews with some variation of the assertion that Tom (Run, Lola, Run) Twyker’s Perfume “smells,” “stinks,” or emits a “stench.” Really. Not since Shark Sandwich has a work set itself up more unwittingly for a cheap shot — and that bit was scripted. (And far cleverer.) Now, granted: This review’s header is no less predictable, but at least it isn’t patently dismissive in exchange for that just-add-water, pseudo-poison-pen effect. And I don’t mean to imply that I haven’t slung my share of more-or-less unwarranted muck. But while it’s true that Perfume isn’t flawless (it’s only about half so), it deserves a sight more effort than what’s being expended in some arenas.

Birthed with an unceremonious, foley-art “sploosh” in a reeky and wretched 18th-century Parisian fish market, little Jean-Baptiste Grenouille could hardly have been expected to become any sort of exceptional being. His own mother, indeed, having summarily squatted and deposited him in the moldering muck, gives baby a quick shove under the display stand and returns to her peddling, supposing him to be the latest in a long line of stillbirths (and, faith, neglecting to test this theory). When grubby but righteous passersby notice that the would-be tyke is still alive, they make certain Mom doesn’t remain so for much longer, sending her to the gallows for attempted baby-murder. Thus begins the trail of dead, inadvertent and otherwise, that will follow Grenouille (Gray-new-EEH) the length of his life.

We’re soon made distinctly aware that our boy does possess a singular talent, after all: His sense of smell, as demonstrated memorably via persistent, atmospheric, rapid-fire montages of presumably aromatic subjects, is better-developed and more perceptive than perhaps any in history. He detects glass, underwater stone, maggots inside a dead rat — things unseen and, by virtually everyone else, unnoticed. The children at the orphanage where he’s landed are unnerved from the first by the quiet kid who sniffs everything, but he pays them little mind, here reveling in the solitary discovery of his evolving gifts, there dodging a fruit hurled silently at the back of his head, tipped off by something like the olfactory equivalent of Spidey Sense. After a few years, he is sold to a tannery, which transaction aquaints him with hard labor, but far more significantly, provides for the occasional foray back into swirling, scent-filled Paris. Upon one such trip, the now-grown Grenouille (Whisaw) encounters a girl of airy and fragile beauty (flame-haired Karoline Herfurth — Twyker, like Wooderson `and me, too`, loves them redheads) — but, of course, it isn’t her form that attracts him. Eventually, he manages to get himself apprenticed to Giuseppe Baldini (a hammy Hoffman), a fading master perfumer who, in a sprightly and gratifying scene, sees in the young prodigy a means by which to reclaim past glories. Grenouille agrees to use his talents to create new fragrances for Baldini, who, in turn, will show his pupil how to preserve scents as sublime as that of the girl from the city.

As with most tales, Perfume is enjoyed best when its secrets are anticipated least. (Root about, if you like; other accounts will certainly spill.) And for roughly two-thirds of its runtime, the film is just that — a supremely enjoyable, darkly gorgeous fairy tale. Whisaw is as committed and real as one can ask an actor to be; awards almost assuredly lie in this young man’s future. Twyker, forging ahead where Kubrick and Scorsese reportedly bailed, masterfully handles a novel that — as you’ll be told in many a review — was considered un-adaptable. Smell-O-Vision it ain’t, but the director’s entrancing visuals, paired with Whisaw’s blistering focus, are about as close it gets, and Peter Süskind’s otherworldly version of the serial-killer tack holds up majestically. The film slows, though, as we get to a draggy, surprisingly conventional portion concerning an obsessive father (a tired-seeming Alan Rickman, who’s usually fantastic) and imperiled daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood, who, while a pretty girl, seems a bit out-of-place and less-than-electric) that tragically slays the momentum built by a superb opening and rising action before plunging into an — ahem — climax that requires some momentum to pull off. (Best. Extra Gig. Ever.) Still, Perfume is perhaps the most imaginative and unclassifiable film of this young year (at least until Pan’s Labyrinth comes out), and worth the two-plus hours it’ll cost you. Just leave a mind open.

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