July 20th, 2020

Take It

Just Follow Your Nose . . . To Murder

Don't underestimate body odour--it could rule the world. 2006's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer presents the life of an 18th century French orphan with a preternatural sense of smell. He also happens to be a psychopath who can see value in nothing but smell. Sort of a cross between Psycho and a later Anne Rice vampire novel, its basic idea of a kind of aesthetic taking priority over all other things is charming but the film suffers from an underdeveloped anti-hero played by Ben Whishaw. Supporting players Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman elevate the film greatly, particularly Hoffman, but their appearances are all too brief, leaving us with long periods of film that feel like waiting in a particularly colourless dentist's office.

There's another great actor involved--John Hurt provides an utterly superfluous narration one suspects was added at the insistence of the studio or after a bad test screening. But if you're going to have superfluous narration, you can't go wrong with John Hurt and he injects some life into the many awkward, overwrought lines like, "When Jean-Baptiste did finally learn to speak he soon found that everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulating within himself."

Jean-Baptiste (Whishaw) is shown growing up in the grey, grey, and grey streets of muddy old Paris amid the fish and the garbage, a city where people seem to have little to talk about beyond the topic of this miserable orphan. The film has a narrow focus and stays there until Dustin Hoffman shows up.

He plays an Italian perfumer called Baldini whose talents aren't what they used to be and his business is suffering. Hoffman's performance is great and we can see the levels of pride, curiosity, and need in his conversations with the strange young man who turns up one day to deliver animal skins, a young man who's effortlessly able to assemble the perfume of Baldini's competitor. Soon business is booming but it's not enough for Jean-Baptiste.

As the title says, he's a murderer. His first kill seems to have been accidental, a young woman selling fruit whose neck he seems to break somehow when he tries to cover her mouth to stop her screaming. He'd been too focused on her scent. After this, he's compelled to a string of murders of only beautiful women. The movie never addresses why only beautiful women though Alan Rickman's character does point out this pattern to the killings. He plays a wealthy man with a beautiful daughter whose health and safety compel him to work hard to weed out the serial killer.

I'm not sure it's true good looks are always accompanied by good natural odour. I remember a rumour that Brad Pitt has terrible body odour.

Anyway, Jean-Baptiste seems to have more supernatural abilities than the film accounts for. He's able to whisk away two women from a party without anyone noticing. Another woman he manages to kill, disrobe, and put in a pickling tank at a perfumery without any of his coworkers noticing. Many of these problems could've been handled by simply making him a vampire, which I suspect he was in an earlier draft of the source novel by Patrick Suskind.

Whether or not this movie works for you may depend greatly on how attracted you are to Ben Whishaw. One reviewer compared Jean-Baptiste to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov but Jean-Baptiste doesn't have the layers of philosophy and internal conflict of Raskolnikov. He's about as complicated as Toucan Sam, he just follows his nose. I can imagine if he's your type, though, the movie might be a satisfying, wicked pleasure.