I hate to write an introductory paragraph like this. I know there are still a crop of leftovers from 2006 I patiently await (here’s looking at you Mandy Lane, Leslie Vernon, and a Hatchet), but baring the aforementioned unseen(s), I feel comfortable saying that Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of the most complex genre films of 2006. Now having seen Pan’s Labyrinth, I can confidently declare Perfume the most intricate genre film of the year. It has been over a week and the film still sits on my mind.
I’m not jumping the gun and declaring it the best of ’06 – it simply is not, namely because it lacks horror exclusivity – however it is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished pieces of filmmaking of the year. Its audio and visual craft operates an entire sensory market of such vast wealth that were its economy of sensations corporeal it would replace gold as means of measure of currency.
I realize that is a rather bizarre analogy, but the film really is just that consuming. There is never a dull moment, never a dull character, never a dull sound. Never even a dull brick in one of the side buildings. I can’t stress enough how majestic the detail is in every corner of this film. Take a look at this panorama view of just one of the film’s damn near countless sets for a taste of its riches.
But before I over hype the film’s aesthetics, rest assured that the content at the film’s core is just as fascinating as what patrols its surface. It is the most original serial killer film since David Fincher dropped his bombshell in 1995. A story, in every sense of the word, of a man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into duel misfortunes. The first being not only a life of poverty, but a life without any notion of love. And the second being that Jean-Baptiste has the most unique sense of smell the world has ever seen; a sense of smell so extraordinary that it will drive the man to murder again and again in pursuit of a scent whose power over man the world has never seen.
What makes the film so unique, aside from Jean-Baptiste’s command over smells, is that, despite the brutal deaths that meet almost everyone touched by Jean-Baptiste’s life, the man can never be seen as a monster. Tom Tykwer expertly establishes, early on, that Grenouille is only a slave of his misfortune. His nose is the only thing in life he has ever been able to trust. From his mother who gives birth to him under her stand in a fish market, kicking the baby into a pile of guts and slime, to the children at the orphanage who try to kill him, to the working men who abuse his innocence for their own self gain. Not only has no person shown Jean-Baptiste what love is, no one has shown him any capacity for the value of human life. The only thing he knows is the value smells have to him, so when he encounters a truly beautiful girl for the first time, the only desire he has is to capture her scent. Her death, which never leaves his mind, is accidental, but pivotal in his life. It is from that point that his quest to learn the art of perfuming takes hold.
Ben Whishaw has given the genre performance of the year. He has mere pages of dialogue, but literal hours of screen time and a wide range of thoughts to convey with little more than a title of the head. He conveys every one of these necessary emotions through posture and facial expressions. He and Tykwer built an exceptional character who poses great sympathy for his plight, despite the fact that he regularly kills women. The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic as well. No matter how big or small the part (such as Karoline Herfurth, the beauty who encompasses innocence and sparks his hunt), every actor delivers lasting impressions.
My only complaint with the film lies with its length. It clocks in at 147 minutes, which can be a stretch for most viewers. If it were left to anyone characteristic, I think it is this length that’ll keep Perfume from capturing a wider audience. Not that it becomes boring, but watching it one may eventually be aware of the time.
Other than that, it is an almost perfect film. I’ve already beaten to death the fact that it is a stunning production. I’ve stressed how delicate the character is. Anything left for me to praise would fall in either one of those categories: True beauty or true sympathy.
For those who go to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer looking for a straight serial killer film, you’ll not find it. The script is heightened with deaths, but Tykwer never makes it about the act of death. In turn, there are few of the staples one may be expecting from a ‘horror film’. This doesn’t make it any less of a film, simply one that doesn’t function solely by horror guidelines.
It is a sensual film that touches upon thousands of human experiences to tell a story of a man given only one way to experience them all. Even with intense moments of (and I quote the trailer’s MPAA warning label) "abberant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality and disturbing images", it is a class act from start to finish. And believe me, there is a veritable orgy of all those ingredients.
It is a landmark film and, sadly, more often than not, it will meet the same fate so many other landmark films like it have met: under looked and under appreciated.
It deserves neither.