Opening the same week as the overstimulated and underconceived “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Tom Tykwer‘s compelling and daring “Perfume” is in danger of being ignored. At times as CGI-enhanced as Del Toro’s hackneyed trip through the looking glass, “Perfume” nevertheless weaves its effects into a seamless whole, a brilliantly designed retreat into an imagined past. And although both feature sadistic madmen at their centers, “Perfume,” for all its ethereal whimsy, feels the infinitely more humane film. This is even its central focus: an allegory about human nature, the desperate need to be loved, and more problematically (though it’s a terrifically gonzo gambit) the inherent destruction in artistic creation-miraculously Tykwer makes it work, by heightening and overloading all the viewer’s senses at once.
German author Patrick Suskind‘s already-classic Eighties novel, taught at creative writing intro college courses all over the Western world, was a delightfully putrid plunge into florid description, both flamboyant and foul at every turn. Suskind’s chronicle of an eerily blank young man, given the thoroughly “degoutant” and hilariously egregious name Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with a highly developed sense of smell into instant orphanhood amidst offal and fish-heads in an 18th-century Parisian slum, is something of a cult item, and in deference to its origins and rabid fans, Tykwer has created a film that could easily acquire a similarly impassioned, if limited, following. There’s an odd mixture of nervy excess and enormous restraint here – a tribute to the filmmaker’s surprising good taste in telling this grotty tale. Grenouille grows into a sybaritic sociopath of the first order, and as played by the alternately teeny-bopper cute and revoltingly wastrel-ish newcomer Ben Whishaw (he looks like the love child of Tom Courtenay and Gollum), he’s perhaps a more seductive fringe-dweller than Suskind’s more enigmatic creation.
Considering the cipher at the film’s core, “Perfume” is able to visualize its character’s impenetrability with bold visual and aural brush strokes-there are long passages in Tykwer’s film without dialogue, that simply focus on touch, smell, sensations, the nape of a beautiful girl’s swan neck. Grenouille’s ultimate mission (to harness and then bottle the literal scent – the aura – of women) would be overly grotesque, if not downright camp, were it not for Tykwer’s aesthetic, expressionistically depicted understanding of its murderer’s desires. Indeed, even when the film occasionally detours into goofy, bewigged period camp (a meticulously stuffy Dustin Hoffman initially seems woefully miscast as Grenouille’s perfume-alchemist mentor, but his delirious enthusiasm eventually seems all of a piece with Tykwer’s odd world) or bodice-ripping sudsiness (a few wordless montages, meant to evoke the strictly olfactory realm, veer into Calvin Klein territory), Tykwer always drags it back into its morbid netherworld, replete with cryptic John Hurt voice over (shades of “Dogville“) . Ultimately, “Perfume” resembles nothing so much as a swoony, peculiarly elaborate piece of Hammer horror, an opaque, lush serial killer tale, like a Terrence Malick reverie outfitted with Nosferatu claws.
Thankfully, and despite all the odds against adaptations of hugely metaphorical, seemingly “unfilmable” novels, the film remains faithful to its source all the way to its frenetic, enjoyably bombastic climax, which is too strange and in-the-moment enrapturing to spoil, or even to discuss. If not prepared for it by Suskind’s fairy-tale romanticism, viewers might stumble out of the theater baffled and disturbed. I would argue this is precisely the way one should receive a gift as earthy, befuddling, and ornately wrought as “Perfume.”
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]