Scent of a Woman

Perfume is as close to Smell-O-Vision as it gets

Mike D'Angelo

Born amidst the mud and rotting fish of an 18th-century outdoor market, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (played as an adult by newcomer Ben Whishaw) possesses the olfactory acuity of a bloodhound, and spends just about as much time curiously sniffing. One scent in particular haunts him: the singular odor of a young woman he encounters by chance on the street one evening. The lady in question, needless to say, doesn't take kindly to having her flesh repeatedly assaulted by a pair of strange nostrils; in a desperate attempt to stifle her screams for help, Grenouille accidentally suffocates her, and is aghast to discover that her intoxicating scent quickly fades. In that instant, pushing his nose up and down the corpse in vain, he stumbles upon his life's work: He must find a means of preserving—forgive the expression and its unavoidably negative connotation—body odor. Anyone with the most glancing knowledge of perfumery, and of the methods employed to extract scent from blossoms and animals, will shudder for the many other young women who will serve as the subjects of Grenouille's fevered experiments.

As you might imagine, a premise as abhorrent and ludicrous as this one requires a careful modulation of tone. Tykwer, with the help of Whishaw's fearless, uncanny performance in the title role, strikes precisely the right balance between grandiloquence and black humor, committing himself wholeheartedly to Süskind's story while retaining a sense of its absurdity. There's a chilling and yet faintly amused sensuality at work here that gives Perfume the grotesquely avid air of something by the Brothers Grimm; the movie seduces and repels in equal measure. And Tykwer, against all odds, succeeds, at least to some degree, in finding a visual correlative for Grenouille's unusual gift, employing near-subliminal flash cuts and painstaking sound design to create the illusion of individual odors competing for the young man's attention. These creative pseudo-whiffs don't quite evoke actual smells in your mind's nose, so to speak, but, then, neither do the elaborate descriptions found in Süskind's novel. ("The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapor, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out into the nearby alleys.") Short of handing out scratch 'n' sniff cards à la John Waters' Polyester, suggestion is all one could reasonably expect.

However, one might also reasonably expect that a filmmaker striving to build and maintain a delicate, almost ethereal tone would know better than to cast Dustin Hoffman in a key role. Hoffman plays Giuseppe Baldini, the once-renowned, now-ignored perfumer with whom Grenouille serves his apprenticeship, and the problem isn't so much the actor's hammy self-regard, or the way that the halting rhythm of his natural speech pattern conflicts with the Italian accent he unwisely attempts—it's the Hollywood baggage he unavoidably carries, so that the mere sight of him in a wig and face powder breaks the movie's fragile spell. Baldini occupies most of Perfume's second act, and by the time he disappeared from the story, I was convinced that the film had irretrievably lost me. I was unprepared, however, for Süskind's epic, insane climax, rendered faithfully here by Tykwer and a very obliging cast of thousands, which simultaneously drops your jaw into your tub of popcorn and reveals the entire tale to be a potent, disturbing metaphor for the uneasy and inequitable relationship between the artist and his public. I can't guarantee that you will like Perfume, but you will never forget it. It lingers.

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