I remember the exact moment I realized I had to review PERFUME for you. The main character starts killing the bulk of his victims, and this is presented in…a montage.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen: a montage! Any director with that large a pair deserves his movie watched. Thus, we enter into the weird, strange, beautiful, disgusting, sensual, unique, sexual, funny, exotic fairy tale world of PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER.
Let me ask you a question, and I'm being serious here. If you found out that Mozart or Shakespeare had committed murders when they were teenagers, and you could go back in time and have them caught and punished for their crimes, which would mean they would never accomplish what they did, would you do it?
If you are being honest, of course you wouldn't do it. (You don't care about most of the people dying today; don't for a minute pretend your heart aches for Austrian and English riff-raff several hundred years ago.)
The point is, if we were honest, we would give up "justice" in our hypotheticals because of what Mozart and Shakespeare produced. They contributed to the Human Soul in ways dwarfing other people, and a "greater good" mentality we'd surely take. (At least, were we voting privately.)
Perhaps not meaning to, PERFUME gives us a similar question. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in 18th Century Paris, and a more disgusting place you cannot imagine. Save for fate, Jean-Baptiste would have died soon after birth, discarded by his own mother who had better things to do. What makes Jean-Baptiste so special is that he has the most exquisite sense of smell in the history of humankind. This dude would make Blood Hounds commit Seppuku in shame. And if that were not enough; he has no scent whatsoever of his own.
As Jean-Baptiste grows older, his mission, his obsession becomes preserving the scent of women. Beautiful women. Alluring women. Much more importantly, good-smelling women. By accident, he kills a woman while trying to smell her, soon realizing to his horror that her scent fades with her life's blood. From there his path is clear.
That Jean-Baptiste ends up killing more than a few women in his attempt to bottle their essence, their scent into a perfume is treated by the movie as I said earlier; as almost irrelevant. At this point, I'd like us to acknowledge that any death is horrible and should be treated as such and blah blah blah.
The point is: we've all seen that movie before. Every one of us has seen the movie (or read the book) of a killer obsessed with beauty. Whether it's KISS THE GIRLS or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, those movies have been made, any number of times. I'm not saying they are bad movies, but that's not what this movie is about.
If PERFUME were reduced to the whole "killing" angle, the cat-and-mouse of Jean-Baptiste and his adversaries, it might be a decent film, but it certainly wouldn't be memorable.
But this movie is about something you've never seen before: a guy who can smell anything, and who revels in each and every smell he comes across, and is absolutely obsessed with preserving those scents forever, so others can smell them too. Is he crazy? Of course. Would I put a knife in his ribs if he looked sideways at any of my womenfolk? Without hesitation.
But was I fascinated by a movie that took me to places I never thought about before, that had the audacity to attempt to film scent, and one man's lonely journey to capture it? You bet your sweet bippy.
PERFUME is based on an acclaimed French novel, one that various filmmakers reportedly wanted to film over the years. Stanley Kubrick wanted to do it, but said the book was "unfilmable." I haven't read the book (or heard the even more acclaimed audio-book), but I have no doubt it would be tough. How do you convey scent? How do you wash everything else away and make us understand how important it is?
Tom Tykwer figured out how. Perhaps the most creative European director you've never heard of, Tykwer fills the screen with visual scent, at times sweet, at times musty, at times so disgusting I wanted to turn my head. It is an orgy of smell, but somehow it worked for me. I was riveted, and could not take my eyes off the screen.
The performances were great, including British stage actor Ben Wishshaw as Jean-Baptiste. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman turn in their usual 100% awesome supporting work, and John Hurt narrates like a stud. There are many beautiful women in the film, but while the film is about the scent of a woman, it really isn't about women. Maybe that sounds sexist. Maybe it even is. But it's just the story we're presented with.
I have no idea if anyone else will like this film. My suspicion is that some of you will be blown away and will tell all your friends. Others will be offended and quit speaking to me. I'm not sure either camp would be wrong. PERFUME is so strange and weird that I cannot categorize how your reaction might be. I only know that if you are looking for that great unique film experience, this is what you want to try. If you'd like a totally different (read: crazy French guy) perspective, but without the subtitles, this is your movie. It's in English. I'm not sure if there has ever been a film so thoroughly French in its thought-process come to us without the language barrier.
If you are brave (and if you plan on watching it this weekend, please write and tell me so we can discuss; I've been itching to talk about PERFUME with someone), try not to get messed up by the ending. There are at least 40 times in the last twenty minutes when you'll go "what the hell was that?"
I'm not saying I have the answers. How a serial killer gets compared to Christ is beyond me, and the other stuff…
My advice is to remember the circumstances of the beginning: Jean-Baptiste is born with what's basically a super-power. I took that to mean I was watching a fairy tale, and so to just watch it and not get caught up in how realistic certain plot points might be.
That said, I have also spent an inordinate amount of time since then thinking about greatness and what might be excused because of it. It's Raskolnikov's old question from Crime and Punishment. Are the truly great allowed a different morality than the rest of us? Is bringing the world greatness a higher virtue than leading a good life?
If so, we owe Tom Tykwer a murder or two, because PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER is a bloody great film.