You've heard of snuff films? The latest from German director Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer may well be the world's first "sniff" film. Never before has the sense of smell played as central a role in a work of cinema.
Based on Patrick Suskind's acclaimed 1985 novel, Perfume offers the comic, grisly and visionary story of gifted sociopath Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by Ben Whishaw, who portrayed Keith Richards in last year's Stoned. Here he stars as an artist whose nose, rather than ear, is exceptionally well developed.
Set in 18th-century France, the film begins with Grenouille's birth in the stench-ridden fish markets of Paris. Before he learns to speak he has already learned the scent of everything in his environment. He undergoes a life-changing experience upon his first trip into the city. A utopia of novel aromas greets him - virtually all of them pleasing. Like a starving man at a banquet, he gorges on the smells from cafés, the scent of silks, the small cathedral of a perfume shop. Of all the aromas that intoxicate him, however, the most potent is - you guessed it - the scent of a woman.
Exposed for the first time to the aroma of a beautiful young female not covered in fish slime, Grenouille helplessly trails a particularly redolent creature until she starts to scream. He places his hand over her face and accidentally smothers her. What follows is a remarkable scene.
In a lot of serial killer movies, this is where things would get icky. But the fellow isn't interested in sex. To him, the tragedy of her death is that he has no way to keep her smell. In this moment he realizes his life's destiny: to "learn how to preserve scent so that never again would he lose such sublime beauty."
Dustin Hoffman is marvelous as the has-been perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, who teaches the young man the secrets of the trade. With the help of Grenouille's instinctive genius, the shop becomes the toast of Paris society. The young man eventually realizes that to fulfill his destiny he must move to Grasse, where he can learn a mysterious technique known as enflorage.
There, he innovates a process for preserving the essences of debutantes, prostitutes, nuns and farm girls whose murders he commits almost incidentally. His goal is to blend their scents into one of indescribable loveliness. The final third of the film concerns his pursuit of the final note he needs in his formula, the essence of a luminous young aristocrat played by Rachel Hurd-Wood.
Tykwer makes of all this murder and madness a concoction of improbable beauty. Perfume is not just the finest film of his career, but easily one of the past year's most accomplished. The director's recreation of pre-Revolutionary France is lavishly imaginative, the cinematography flawless and the score otherworldly. We've seen proficiently crafted pictures set in the same period. What sets this one apart are the inspired source material, top-of-their-game work from an unusually talented cast, and the filmmakers' ability to convey the world of smell through a visual, verbal and musical alchemy. It's never been done before, and has to be seen to be believed.