Perfume: The Story of A Murderer

Clerk’s Pick

Today, I am kicking off a brand new segment here at Misan[trope]y Movie Blog. I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of physical media, and even more-so the culture that has formed around video stores over the years. In keeping with that, I am going to be doing a weekly segment called “Clerk’s Pick”, in which I let one of the clerks at my local video rental shop (Video Central of Columbus, OH) select and pitch a movie for me to review. I’ve always loved recommendations that come from actual people, and they tend to be a little more interesting and accurate than that whole Netflix “Max” thing. So, let’s get it kicked off:

Clerk:
Max, Video Central

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Movie:
“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”

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Pitch:
“Have you seen ‘Perfume?’ It is one of the best films in the store. I’m surprised more people haven’t hear of it. It is a big movie: Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, a whole lot of locations, and the largest orgy sequence I’ve ever seen. The main kid, Ben Whishaw, is the new Q in the James Bond movies. Anyway, it is about this guy who is trying to make a perfume based on the scent of his lover, so he starts murdering people and trying to use their fat and stuff to perfect the smell. You have to see it.”

Background:
Director/writer Tom Tykwer gained considerable international acclaim in 1998 with the beloved German indie “Run Lola Run”, which came about 8 years before “Perfume.” In those 8 years, he failed to match up to the international acclaim of “Lola”, releasing “The Princess and The Warrior” in 2000 and “Heaven” in 2002. Both were well-regarded and acclaimed in Germany, but didn’t receive much attention outside of Europe. After “Perfume”, he directed some larger movies (2009’s “The International” and “Cloud Atlas” in collaboration with the Wachowskis in 2012), but both were box office failures and met with mixed critical reviews.

The other writers on “Perfume” were Andrew Berkin (of “Omen 3 – The Final Conflict”) and prolific producer Bernd Eichinger, who is probably best known as being an EP for all of the Fantastic Four movies (yes, all of them). That said, he has a number of writing credits as well: most notably 2004’s highly acclaimed “Downfall,” which follows the fall of Adolph Hitler. However, “Perfume” was admittedly his dream project. Rumor has it that despite Eichinger being a good friend of the book’s author, the rights to the work cost the production 10 million Euro, a precedent that ultimately led the movie to being the most expensive German film of all time (50 million Euro).

“Perfume” is based on a 1985 German novel of the same name written by Patrick Suskind, which was generally well-regarded upon release. The story has been loosely adapted into television on the show “Criminal Minds”, inspired a song by Nirvana, and was recently debuted as a stage musical in Russia (really?), but Tykwer has been the only person to adapt it to the big screen so far. However, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

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A movie production of “Perfume” had been planned for years, with names like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton all at one point rumored to be involved (or actually were in Scott’s case). It is a wonder that such a sought after work landed in the hands of the relative neophyte Tykwer. Perhaps realizing the pressure and expectations for the picture, his ultimate charge of the production was near-Kubrickian in its attention to detail.

The costumes were custom made based on extensive research on the art and history of the period, and the actors were required to live in them to create a more accurate worn appearance for filming. The orgy scene, one of the largest in cinema history, was meticulously choreographed and featured professional dancers on the insistence of Tykwer. Also, as Max mentioned in the pitch, the production gallivanted throughout Europe: while the bulk of filming took place in Barcelona, shooting was also done throughout Spain, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

The cast is mostly made up of somewhat recognizable European character actors, which is in no way an insult: it is clearly a proudly European movie. Outside of Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, faces are mostly only familiar from German indie productions or the BBC. However, the recently knighted John Hurt does provide the narration, which is a nice touch. Ben Whishaw is given the lead role of Grenouille, a young actor who seems to be a still-rising star in Europe. He has appeared in a number of the bigger Tykwer movies like “Cloud Atlas” and “The International,” as well as the Helen Mirren led adaptation of “The Tempest,” BBC miniseries “Criminal Justice,” the surreal Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem,” and an ongoing role in the James Bond franchise as the new Q.

“Perfume” ultimately grossed $135 million, but a little less than half of that came specifically out of the German market, meaning it didn’t quite get the international steam that was hoped for. Regardless, it made a nice sum of money, and audiences mostly liked it despite critics being mixed (58% on Rotten Tomatoes, against a 74% Audience Score and a 7.5 on IMDb).

Review:

First off, “Perfume” has some really cool cinematography throughout the film. There is loads of visceral imagery, like the filmmakers are trying their best to portray smell via a visual medium. It is impossible not to notice all of the intentional focus on noses, with interesting shots and use of shadows to emphasize them.

There is a good amount of interesting sound editing, and in particular a lot of ambient, discordant music which adds to the intentional discomfort of the film’s atmosphere. Speaking of which, I don’t think I have ever come across a movie that so expertly creates such a sickening, repulsive atmosphere. In that sense, it is beyond a success.

perfume4One of the key complaints that I read about the film was that the script wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of the material. Honestly, I kind of wish there wasn’t so much narration: there is an awful lot of telling when the showing is already doing the job. That said, John Hurt’s voice works pretty well, even if the words written for him aren’t stellar. Whishaw has to do a lot of non-verbal acting in the movie, and he does a pretty good job with it. Without his performance, all the atmosphere created by the sound, the editing, the costuming, the locations, and the cinematography would have been lost. He holds it together, but the beauty is in the trim on this one: he isn’t fantastic, but the work around him elevates the ultimate product. Again, I credit a lot of this to the aforementioned meticulous attention to detail on the part of Tykwer and the crew. Absolutely nothing about this movie is half-assed.

perfume3I’m not sure how I feel about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the initial perfumer mentor to Whishaw’s Grenouille character. Something just feels off about it, and it is hard to nail down what it is. He is trying to pull off an accent that seems unnecessary, which at least partially contributes to the issue. Part of the problem might also sit in the writing of the character, but whatever the reason, it is a conspicuous weak point in the movie. That said, it doesn’t last very long: for being one of the top bills, Hoffman doesn’t spend much time in the movie. As with most of Grenouille’s masters throughout the film, he is coincidentally and quickly dispatched as soon as Grenouille leaves his company, which is kind of a problem to itself. When the house literally comes crashing down in on Hoffman, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. It plays almost like it is supposed to be absurdly comical, which definitely does not fit in with the greater tone of the movie.

perfume5The film’s has a couple of women who serve as the principal objects of Grenouille’s obsession, but neither of them get a whole lot of screen time. Both Rachel Hurd-Wood and Karoline Herfurth fit their roles well, even if that role is essentially as a set piece. Of the two, I thought Karoline did the better job with the smaller role. Hurd-Wood just didn’t seem to deliver her lines very well, but it wasn’t so awful that it was excessively distracting. By contrast, Alan Rickman plays Hurd-Wood’s protective father, and kills his role just like he always does. However, just like Hoffman, he only gets a small section of the movie to show what he can do.

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Karoline Herfurth
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Rachel Hurd-Wood

I would be remiss to not mention the bizarre, absurd ending to this movie. Throughout the film, Grenouille is transfixed with the idea of preserving the smell of humans, and is seeking the ability to create the finest smell of all time. Hoffman’s character regales him with a legend of a Pharaoh, who was buried with a perfume so fine that all of the world experienced a split second of paradise when it was released. That story proves to be foreshadowing, as the movie ends with Grenouille finally creating his master perfume: but only after figuring out the logistics of condensing human aromas, a process that required a fair amount of murder on Grenouille’s part. As Grenouille is about to be executed, he releases the perfect perfume, sparking a mass orgy. He is then spared of his grisly fate because everyone is just too damn busy having that previously mentioned perfume-catalyzed orgy. However, Grenoille soon decides to kill himself via adoring crowd by dousing himself in the perfume, which is a rather peculiar way to go.

There is a lot that can be said about the ending. I don’t mind the surreal aspects so much, but I didn’t feel like Grenouille was ever relate-able or sympathetic enough for me to feel anything about his ultimate…sacrifice? I’m not sure if you could even call it that. He certainly never showed remorse or redeemed himself for his actions, apart from cooking up an apparently kick-ass perfume. I would say that the ending is a overall a weak cap on an otherwise good movie.

perfume9In general, I recommend this one with a few caveats. Some of the murder scenes are incredibly uncomfortable, but if you have the stomach for it, the film is a real spectacle to sit through. The cinematography and costuming are the real standouts, but there is a lot more than that to appreciate about the film. The second caveat is that the writing and acting is spotty: the narration cuts in and out and isn’t written very well, and Hoffman is a huge weak spot in the cast. However, the beauty is in the details on this film: all of the little things really add up, and it definitely shows through in the finished product.

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