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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

It's the 1760s, and the French have formed one of those angry mobs they used to be 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 (2006), 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 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. And 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 into murder and insanity. Perfume stars the magnetic British actor Ben Whishaw 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. It's a delightfully twisted, marvelously bizarre story, told with a coy and playful tone, 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 tale 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 it's better that a filmmaker should be too creative than not creative enough. Perfume is ghastly and horrific, entertaining and mesmerizing, and it smells fantastic.

Paramount/DreamWorks' DVD release of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has a sumptuous and colorful anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 surround audio mixes. Sadly, there is only one extra, a fairly standard "making-of" featurette (14 min.). Keep-case.
—Eric D. Snider



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