Of all the sensory wonders movies are capable of submerging viewers in, the hardest to translate is smell. So it's almost a shame that the old "Smell-O-Vision" gimmick wasn't dragged out of retirement for this yarn of a man with an extraordinary olfactory gift. It's based on an acclaimed novel by Patrick Susskind, a cult book with many enthusiastic devotees including Kurt Cobain, who wrote the song "Scentless Apprentice" about it. As beloved as it may be, the novel seems unfilmable, with its focus on a sensation that a movie can't replicate, intricate language play and twisted protagonist who kills beautiful young virgins in order to bottle their essence in what is the most intoxicating fragrance ever made. As daunting a task as it must have been, German director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) mostly pulls it off, with a lavish, weird and unforgettably original movie; though a profoundly troubling one.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is orphaned in grimy 18th century Paris after his fishmonger mother is hanged for trying to dispose of him. And Grenouille would be forever lost in the rotting underbelly of society if not for his amazing nose. A chance encounter leads to an apprenticeship with struggling perfumer Baldini (a hammy Dustin Hoffman), who's seen better days but becomes a smash success due to his charge's ability to detect the individual components of the finest perfumes. Grenouille becomes obsessed with making the greatest scent imaginable, and accidentally discovers that a freshly killed virgin is the secret ingredient he's been missing. Soon he retreats to the mountain town of Grasse, a place renowned for its advanced scent-making techniques and its ample supply of buxom young ladies. The town panics as its precious flowers get plucked, and only man-about-town Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman) is on to the grubby outsider. Richis makes it his business to stop him and to protect his own lovely daughter.
Perfume is ultimately too long and too literal, attempting flights of fantasy that might have played better on the page, but it's undeniably gorgeous, with a stunning visual canvas of filthy city streets and verdant hills coated in purple blossoms. True to its theme, the movie is overly ambitious, attempting to capture something elusive and wondrous, no matter what ends it takes to achieve it.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].