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Movie review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

   I should note right from the start that I probably would not pick up the book on which this movie is based. Nonetheless, I came across its showing on cable completely by accident and one fleeting look was enough for me to record its subsequent re-run and watch it beginning to end. Despite my natural aversion to these types of stories, I am a bit surprised to admit that Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of the best dramas that I watched in a long time.

A young man in mid-eighteenth-century Paris develops unparalleled olfactory abilities while growing up in an orphanage and then slaving away in a tannery. His sense of smell is the guiding force in his life, to the extent of stunting his other senses and feelings. Upon an unfortunate encounter with a young and presumably full of fantastic smells woman, he becomes obsessed with capturing the essence of virginal beauty, and to that effect first seeks instruction from an accomplished perfumer and later engages in murdering beautiful women all over the famous perfume town of Grasse to gather their scents in his quest. He achieves his life’s ambition just as he is caught, but with a few drops of his concoction he manages to bewitch the entire town and escape the execution. Observing the effects of his perfume on the townsfolk, he realizes how empty and devoid of love his life has been, and, instead of using the elixir for power and riches, he uses it to leave the world.

Ok. As fables go, this one is rather too disturbing and messianic for my taste, but it is, after all, a fable. I keep wondering how a sensitive nose can operate and continue to be refined in constant conditions of grime and slime (and whether a woman of less than noble descent would, in fact, smell wonderfully in the 18th century France), but again, this is meant to be a legend, not a factual history lesson. And it is a legend quite beautifully made.

Everything, from recreation of the times to depiction of the single-minded obsession of the unfortunate Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, to visual clues of the plethora of smells that influence him, is done magnificently. The graphic palette that accompanies the development that we cannot ourselves, pardon the pun, get a whiff of, is simply breathtaking. Conversely, the murders are pretty much all implied, rather than acted out, and the victims are never savaged, which allows the notion of the magical perfume that is harvested from their bodies and ultimately brings joy to people to remain untainted.

Heretofore unknown to me Ben Whishaw, who plays the main character, projects anguish, maniacal obsession and absence of moral values in a powerful and restrained way. You cannot help but want Jean-Baptiste to be thwarted in his pursuit of his innocent prize victim, yet at the same time, you want to know what the ultimate perfume will be about.

I liked Dustin Hoffman’s turn as a declining master of perfumery, but less so Alan Rickman’s as a wealthy Grasse merchant. But the acting, in the end, is secondary in this picture, overtaken by the portrayal of smells that surround us, not least of them the scent of a woman.

If you cannot get past the turns of the plot, you will not think highly of this movie. But this is a case where you need to stop thinking and start sensing…

 

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