I haven’t done a movie review in quite some time. Perhaps it’s because most movies out there are merely exercises in didactic over exertion and those don’t hold any fascination for me. The best films are those that don’t hit you over the head with any message at all, but respects the audience enough to make it subtle AND, (and here’s the key word here) entertaining. Those who make films (and I would include all artists such as novelists, song writers, etc.) seem to fall into two camps; those who make it for the sheer artistry and storytelling and those who make them to teach us all a lesson. I much prefer the former category.
Last night I received Perfume, The Story of a Murderer in the mail from Netflix. I had never heard of this movie, based on the 1986 German novel Das Parfum and never saw it advertised and it’s been out since 2006. I am always fascinated about why movies do not make a larger dent in the public consciousness when they come out but just because I didn’t notice it doesn’t mean it wasn’t released widely. I am always annoyed with the movie industry and around Oscar time I am particularly peeved by the blatant politicization of movies every year. The movies released in November and December are always nominated for Oscars and all the movies that come previous to that are always overlooked. It’s a perfect setup that never varies. This is why I never watch nor do I have much respect for the Academy Awards any longer. Members of the Academy ceased to be relevant a long time ago, except perhaps as a mirror held up to their own faces. But I digress.
First, the movie is narrated wonderfully by actor John Hurt and this sets the tone for the entire film. It reminded me of the frame in Big Fish or the television show Pushing Daisies yet far darker and much less witty in intent. The main character of this movie is Jean Baptiste Grenouille who begins life as a poor abandoned infant in the dirtiest, most despicable part of France and whose remarkable sense of smell defines his entire life. The problem? He has no scent of his own. His main desire in life is to collect the essences of all odors, including the impossible essences of glass and copper, and apprentices himself to a perfumer (a most brilliant Dustin Hoffman) who knows the logistics of distilling and mixing scents but has no talent for creating perfumes that sell. He makes the mistake of telling Grenouille an Egyptian tale of the 13 essences which make up the greatest perfume in the world. Now Grenouille is bent on finding this secret formula. To say Grenouille is an aberrant personality is slightly an understatement but you do have some sympathy for the boy. He’s had the hardest of lives imaginable. And something, somewhere went even more horribly wrong in the formation of his conscience. His descent into murderous ways is almost innocent. He wants others to love him as he sees people do with each other every day. He has no sense of boundaries. He has no concept that what he is doing may be wrong. All he wants is to distill the odors of young women because he finds it the most irresistible and life-giving smell in his world. And, above all, he wants love. He just chooses the most anti-social way of finding the “essence” of love that he can; murder. He literally harvests the scents of women. In his quest he comes across the one girl that will complete his collection of essences and he is bent on getting her, despite the efforts of her father (Alan Rickman) to hide her.
Ben Whishaw is perfect as the tortured soul yet seemingly serene soul, Grenouille. The film is compelling in its portrayal of Grenouille’s existential despair in the face of being overlooked simply for being born and being scentless. Catholics will be offended by the portrayal of the French bishop’s caricaturish belief in the superstitions of the day and the movie’s semi-penultimate scene in which the town amasses to execute Grenouille but descends into a pheromone induced orgy instead is sure to insult many. But I am never prude enough to overlook the beauty and skill of the intent of the movie because of the content of some scenes. Do they serve a purpose? Yes, they do. It is enough. This movie reminds me of Chocolat a tad bit although much harsher in tone and content. But the trope is the common one of someone coming to town and altering the perception of it’s residents and the town religionists forever. This film is more about religion in the face of a presence that cannot be precisely described as evil because it’s motives are the purest. Grenouille is completely unaware of his action’s wrongness. Wrapping your mind around that one and the implications of it should keep you busy after viewing. The movie is dark and gritty in parts but exquisitely filmed and beautifully rendered. We are plunged from darkness to light in equal measures not only in landscape but in Grenouille’s life. It is sad and beautiful all at once in Grenouille’s quest to be noticed, loved, and desired. And the final scene is a moment of magical realism that will leave you pondering for quite some time.
I would recommend it but don’t watch it if you dislike the dark and the gritty mixed with blood or if you dislike mocking of religion. I just happen to like all of the above especially if a thoughtful message is cleverly disguised in an artful piece of work.