Smells like murder!

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” brings Patrick S

Matt Graham

What determines the morality of an action? Is a bad act simply a bad act, or is evil only evil if it is committed with actual malice?

This is the primary question behind “Perfume,” Tom Tykwer’s (“Run Lola Run”) adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel. The film follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan born in 18th century Paris gifted with an exceptional sense of smell.

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman
Rated: R
Showing at: Lagoon Cinema, (612) 825-6006

Grenouille’s nose is so strong that he doesn’t even learn to speak until he’s five years old; he’s so enamored with the scents around him and he learns to use it as a kind of sonar. There’s a lot for him to smell because, as the film’s narrator reminds us, Paris in the 1700s was a putrid morass of fish guts, body odor and human waste.

Grenouille runs into trouble when he follows a young merchant girl down a back alley, enamored by her scent. When he accidentally strangles her, he is perturbed to find that her aroma leaves her body with her life.

He enrolls as the apprentice to Italian perfume maker Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to learn how to keep smells forever. He sees it as his life’s mission to preserve such “sublime beauty” from ever vanishing.

Inspired by the legend of an ancient Egyptian perfume that supposedly made all who smelled it feel as though they were in heaven, Grenouille sets out to make the ultimate scent, trying to capture the smells of such items as glass and copper.

His search intensifies when he discovers he has no bodily odor of his own. Because he identifies everything by its scent, he becomes a man without an identity, and his search for the perfect perfume becomes his search for himself. After much trial and error, he hits on the ingredient he needs: the scent of young, virginal women.

The string of murders that follows brings out the worst in the town’s populace, making them turn on one another and shoot people randomly in the streets, suspecting all of being the killer. Meanwhile Grenouille, introverted and cherubic as ever, maintains his single-minded focus of creating the world’s greatest perfume.

Tykwer masterfully handles an adaptation that Stanley Kubrick desperately wanted to do but felt to be unfilmable. He creates a world of deeply colored fruits and flowers, clothes and hair, looking almost like a L’Oréal commercial – everything looks like it has a scent. But credit must be given to the editing of Alexander Berner – there is minimum camera movement, but Berner pieces together thousands of isolated and oftentimes blurred out shots taken from bizarre angles into a seamless whole and imbues the film with a constant sense of motion.

Beginning with the opening sequence depicting Grenouille’s comic-but-brutal childhood, which saw him left for dead by his mother as an infant, “Perfume” paints the portrait of a likable serial killer. Grenouille isn’t vicious; he’s an artist, an entirely unique genius. His goal isn’t pain and death, but beauty, love and spiritual exaltation.

One city official, Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman, “Harry Potter”) is haunted by the fact that none of the murdered virgins are violated, and, fearing for his own daughter’s life, becomes obsessed with trying to get into the criminal’s head: “It’s as if he’s trying to collect their beauty.”

Can a killer like Grenouille be condemned? Is he comparable to somebody like John Wayne Gacy, or a run-of-the-mill armed robber? The laws of society say yes, murder is murder and must be punished. But the laws of the mind, of the human spirit, say something different, as the citizens of the city find out when they try to hang Grenouille in the public square and he unleashes his recently completed fragrance upon them, crafted of the essences of 13 innocent young girls. Can something that brings so much bliss to so many people ever be considered evil?

It hardly matters. Bob Dylan once mused “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” and perhaps it’s true that the most profound beauty emerges only from the starkest pain. No human judgment can compare to what Grenouille’s own existence inflicts upon him: His life’s work complete, Grenouille finds himself an empty man, still without the idealized love that was secretly behind all of his actions, still searching for what he was never given, still yearning for what he can never get.