It’s the 1760s, and the French have formed one of those angry mobs they’re so famous for. A thin, intense-looking young man is convicted of murder and condemned to death in the town square. The rabble are thrilled. Justice!
So begins “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” a most bizarre, bemusing, and beguiling quasi-thriller from German director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and based on Patrick Suskind’s novel. The condemned man is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), and the film, dispassionately narrated by John Hurt, leaps back to before the angry mob to tell his story.
We begin with his birth in the putrid streets of Paris, expelled from his impoverished mother’s womb into the fish guts and dog piles that mark this loud, unbelievably malodorous time in history. Raised in an orphanage and apprenticed at a tannery, young Grenouille (played as a boy by Franck Lefeuvre) discovers he has a unique gift: His sense of smell is more powerful than anyone else’s. He can detect the slightest hint of lilac a quarter-mile away, can tell you what you ate for breakfast yesterday, can discern which ingredient has been omitted from a cake batter. If the gift of super-smell were useful to mankind in any major way, he would be a superhero.
The quiet, forlorn Grenouille finds the one place his skills can benefit him when he becomes apprentice to a vivacious perfume-maker named Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). Able to smell everything perfectly, Grenouille can concoct the most appealing fragrances by using exactly the right measurements of all the ingredients. The perfumes he makes for Baldini are wildly successful.
Yet as often happens with mad geniuses — and that’s what Grenouille is, a mad genius — success is not enough. He is curious about scents and wants to distill them down to their most basic elements. Take a beautiful woman, for example. She probably smells lovely. But what does “beauty” actually smell like? Can you bottle it? Grenouille wants to.
And thus begins his descent. Unrestricted by factors of morality or decency, Grenouille views the world as nothing more than a laboratory in which to experiment. He begins murdering beautiful young women in order to distill the scents from their bodies, first in Baldini’s basement and later out in the countryside, all ingredients in his recipe for the most divine scent ever created.
Soon the streets of the little town of Grasse are thrown into chaos. Paranoia reigns supreme. A madman is killing our young virgins! What on earth could he be DOING with them?! If they only knew….
The British actor Ben Whishaw is magnetic as the taciturn, sociopathic Grenouille, with Dustin Hoffman doing slightly goofy work as his perfume mentor. Also on hand is Alan Rickman as the protective father of one of the young women Grenouille has in his sights. All parties are committed to the madness of the film, never winking at us to acknowledge the preposterousness, instead focused intently on the story, telling it as though it were real, as though it could happen today.
The film eventually works its way back to the beginning, with Grenouille arrested and charged with murder, and then you think it’s over but it isn’t. I feel confident in saying I have never seen a film like this one, and I’ve rarely seen anything as delightfully twisted. Its story is marvelously bizarre, its tone is coy and playful, and Tykwer directs it thrillingly. He’ll take close-up shots of noses, skin, and so forth, trying to convey in a visual medium what smells “look” like, giving us a story that’s as visually inventive as his late-’90s underground hit “Run Lola Run.”
A movie like this runs the risk of becoming too weird for its own good, and maybe Tykwer gets a little indulgent at times. But as I’ve said before, I’d rather have the problem of a filmmaker being too creative than not creative enough. “Perfume” is ghastly and horrific, entertaining and mesmerizing, and it smells fantastic.
B+ (2 hrs., 27 min.; )