Yep, well - the film title kind of gives away what the story’s about, doesn’t it? Well, I’d say yes and no, in fact. Perfume (2006) (to give its short title) was a film I came away from thinking: “I enjoyed that, but I’m just not sure why.”
The central character is a distinctly unlikeable chap from the off. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) had a rather unpleasant childhood, that’s for sure, but I don’t think his background had much to do with it. Whishaw, even though he is a handsome young chap, manages convincingly to play Grenouille as the kind of guy you really wouldn’t mess with. In one scene, he turns to face the camera and it’s like staring into the face of Satan. Superbly freaky.
Grenouille was born under a table in a fish market in Paris in the 18th century, a place where there would certainly have been many odours, most of them not good. From the second of his birth he references the world around him via his sense of smell, the most important sense to him, and becomes obsessed with capturing and keeping scents after a somewhat unfortunate incident with a local peach seller. He inadvertently suffocates her (in so far as you can ‘inadvertently’ suffocate anyone) and is distressed that the aroma that led him to follow her disappears after her death.
In his quest to capture the essence of everything, he pleads with the famous but past-his-best parfumier Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, somewhat strangely cast) to allow him to work for him so he can learn. Pretty soon, Baldini can’t teach him much more and sends him off on an apprenticeship to the greatest perfume-making town in France, Grasse. On his way there, he stops in a cave to rest, a place with virtually nothing to excite his olfactory sense. It is here he makes what is for him an awful discovery - he has no personal scent whatsoever. For a man whose entire life is formed of the smells of things, this is very bad indeed. Grenouille always states that the very essence or soul of a human is their smell. He doesn’t have one, so what is he?
While in Grasse, he decides the time has come to construct the ultimate scent. Armed only with the base compounds that he learned from Baldini, he soon realizes that these are not enough, and the perfume will need a little something extra. The way he goes about getting this something extra does nothing to endear him to you, either. As the full title includes the line The Story of a Murderer, you can probably guess where the vital essences come from. I really don’t want to give too much away, but by the time you get to the end (after 147 minutes) you’ll probably figure it out for yourself. Grenouille is often downright nasty, but if you feel a frisson of sympathy, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The film is very well directed by Tom Twyker (True (2004)) and, although I haven’t read the Patrick Süskind book, I’m told it’s a reasonably faithful retelling. There’s plenty of eye candy for the guys -provided you like ‘em dead within minutes of meeting them, that is. The supporting cast all do their bit just fine (Alan Rickman is always good value) and it all hangs together really rather well. Perhaps a bit of a slow starter for those with a short attention span such as I, but worth persevering with. You may find yourself laughing at certain points, but that’s just schadenfreude at work, believe me.
If you really want my cod philosophical take on it, I’d say the whole thing is a metaphor. It’s about identity and being on the outside edge of humanity. How does someone who relies so heavily on one facet of his existence cope with the fact that the very thing he uses to identify people, he himself does not possess? Perhaps why he’s completely amoral and has no respect for anything that is likely to stand in the way of his ultimate goal - either that, or he’s just a nutter.
Winner of Best Cinematographer (Frank Griebe) and the Prix d'Excellence (Uli Hanisch, production design) in the 2007 European Film Awards.