Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
2006, R, 147 min. Directed by Tom Tykwer. Starring Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Simon Chandler, David Calder.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 12, 2007
Adapted from Patrick Süskind's heretofore unadaptable cult novel about an olfactory vampire in 18th century France, Perfume is a gorgeous but woefully overlong and ultimately misguided mess of a film that attempts to re-create Süskind's memorably overripe novel via the visual (and to a lesser degree, audio) nature of film. It works only up to a point, and by the time (after 2 1/2 hours) the grand finale arrives, you're more likely to wonder at what exact point Tykwer handed over the directorial lash to Ken Russell and, more importantly, why star Whishaw chose to model his entire performance on Anthony Perkins doing Norman Bates. (Certainly it's, hands down, the most bizarre actorly homage I've seen in some time.) And if you're like me, God help you, you'll also be puzzled as to why on Earth Tykwer didn't take the easy way out and provide helpful scratch 'n' sniff cards to the audience, à la John Waters' Polyester. Granted, not everyone wants to assail their nostrils with an orgiastic miasma of sun-dappled fish viscera, the gloppy afterbirth of newborn orphans, or the heady tang of ex-mortem unwashed virgins slathered in animal fat. But still … he might have at least made the effort. Visually, and to the credit of his longtime cinematographer Frank Griebe, Tykwer does all he can to pack our 20th century nasal cavities with phantom, long-ago horrors, and for this reason the film becomes, midway through, less the tale of the attempts of its morally blind antihero (Whishaw) to catalog the myriad fragrances of his time than a detailed lesson in period filmmaking of the hyperrealistic sort. The grimy art direction is a wonder to behold, even if you do leave the theatre compelled to scald yourself silly beneath an Engine No. 9-caliber antibiotic water cannon, quickly and for as long as possible. The wan, jug-eared Whishaw, as the restive maniac Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, acquits himself admirably despite a recurring, hand-wringing tendency to appear as though he's just offed Janet Leigh, and Hoffman, as a dethroned perfumer who takes the burgeoning madman beneath his wing, is awash in tics, harrumphs, and all manner of bizarre Hoffmanisms. Wearing a wig and enough pancake to spackle Versailles, he looks like Marilyn Manson meets Bowie's Fat White Duke – good or bad, it is never anything less than a performance. In the end – and what an end! – however, Perfume emulates its source material too well. Tykwer's camera can assault the audience with the rankest of imagery, but not even once does it come close to distilling the actual aroma of the abattoir that was 18th-century France. And for that, I suppose, we should all be thankful.