I appreciate the bold ambition of and personal sense of flair to Tom Tykwer's morbid epic Perfume: The Story of a Murderer — which is, certainly, an antidote to the unadventurous hegemony of mainstream Hollywood's approach to "serious movies" — but something about its unorthodox storytelling triggered my inner-old man, the curmudgeon who doesn't understand the worldview of today's young punks (complicating this metaphor, Tykwer is seven years my senior). It may be that Perfume is too radical in its iconoclasm, or it may just be stylishly underthought nonsense, but the closer it moved toward its "shocking" finale the more its novelty began to smell of fashionable aesthetic nihilism rather than coherent ideas of substance.
Based on the popular German novel Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind, Tykwer's adaptation stars Ben Wishaw as Grenouille, an orphan with a supernaturally developed sense of smell but an otherwise non-functional personality. With his gift for identifying and concocting scents, Grenouille learns from master perfumers the science of distilling natural aromas into powerful fragrances, which he uses to develop his own method of capturing the elusive essence of humanity that he himself lacks. It's a bizarre and, at times, engrossing premise, which Tykwer presents with both a fable-like innocence and the scope of sweeping historical epic. However, that fable-like simplicity is either unable to deal with the complex moral implications of Grenouille's actions or Tykwer simply finds them uninteresting.
As Perfume: The Story of a Murderer nears its climax, Grenouille's olfactory powers expand to an absurd degree with inexplicable results, the weight of which overpower the premise. As the movie delves ever deeper into its fantasy, it's worth questioning: what exactly is it a fantasy about? Süskind's novel is, supposedly, an allegory for the rise of Hitler; and there are certainly intriguing themes to be discovered within this adaptation. Inline with that interpretation of the source material, Grenouille transforms from broken child into a sociopathic monster as he indulges in a pursuit that seems, to him, transcendent, but which dehumanizes others in the process. But is this metaphor served by the entire story, especially the ending? Does viewing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in the context of this kind of serious commentary expose a laziness of thought that unravels or produces possibly unintentional unsavory connotations? Are those unsavory connotations intentional? Or, did Tykwer get carried away with the filmic possibilities of the material and ignore the moral questions that it poses, with his intent no deeper than to wow and provoke?
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is extremely handsome and imaginative, even though its moments of CGI production design can't match the visual beauty of its natural sets, and the cast seems willing to fully trust in Tykwer's vision. Dustin Hoffman, with his distinctly Brooklyn baritone, fits uncomfortably into a period setting, but Alan Rickman lends his natural gravity as long as the script affords his character his dignity. John Hurt provides an amusing but increasingly superfluous narration.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickchart boss Nathan Chase. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #53/1543 (97%), making it his second favorite movie out of 18 from Rue Morgue's book of 200 Alternative Horror Films You Need To See You Need To See. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1932 (50%), where it's my #53 out of 86 movies on Rue Morgue's list.