Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

(Germany/France/Spain, 2006)

They say that smell is the most primal of our senses, that the nose connects directly to the most primitive part of our brain. Humans have lost much of it, and still a scent can bring back memories when we least expect them. Imagine, then, a man whose sense of smell is as vivid as that of a dog. That’s what the German author Patrick Süskind did in his novel Perfume. Many directors have wanted to make a movie of it over the last 20 years. Stanley Kubrick wrestled with it for years before declaring it was unfilmable. Wrong, Stan. Tom Tykwer, the guy who directed the amazing Run Lola Run, has put it on film. I haven’t read the book and so can’t comment on the adaptation, but he’s made something very, very different here.

I’m probably not the first one to point this out, but at first glance you’d say this is a movie that cries out for that old gimmick, Smell-o-vision … but it wouldn’t work. For one thing, the scratch-n’-sniff card would have to be as big as a bedsheet, and some of the smells would be distinctly unpleasant. And the genius of this film is that you don’t need Smell-o-vision. The director has managed to convey the scents of the scenes with an overwhelming avalanche of images that make you smell them.

To this man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (which means frog, in French), there are no bad smells, just like a dog. He sniffs a dead, maggoty rat as eagerly as he smells a flower. Grenouille has no odor himself, and no morals, no empathy, nothing but obsession with learning the names of the scents around him, and later, finding a method to capture them. This isn’t surprising, as his upbringing would make being raised by wolves seem like an education at a Montessori school by comparison. He is taken under the wing of a has-been perfumer in Paris, played exquisitely by Dustin Hoffman, but soon needs to know things the master can’t teach him. It seems that pheromones are his undoing; once he scents a particular beautiful woman he is so determined to capture that amazing scent that he kills her in the process. He sets out to isolate the essence of beauty itself, and to this end he must murder beautiful women and bottle their scent by a technique called enfleurage. He succeeds, and the results are astonishing …

No need to get into more plot. The movie is beautiful, but the tough sell is the fact that the main character is a monster. The movie bombed big time here, though it did well in Germany. Ben Whishaw seems to be channeling Tony Perkins. He betrays very little emotion, which is appropriate, as Grenouille doesn’t really feel any emotion. But again, a hard sell.

I think some people will love this film and some will hate it. I’m still thinking about it, which is good. But whatever your reaction, I think it will cling to you, either like the stink on shit, or like Chanel No. 5 to the breasts of Sophia Loren.