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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Dreamworks Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 7/24/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 7/20/2007

When was the last time that you saw an art-house historical costume drama, with a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy twist which also featured a serial killer? Yeh, me neither, and I would be hard pressed to believe that a project such as this one would make it into, let alone through, any producer's office. But, when the idea is based on a very popular novel, which some consider to be a classic of modern literature, then it's not as surprising that the movie got made. However, trust me that there are plenty of surprises in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is set in 18th century France, and as the film opens, we witness the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. In what will be only the first in a series of shocking and tragic events in the story, Grenouille's mother simply gives birth behind her the table where she sells fish in the slums of Paris, kicks the baby under the table, and goes back to work. When some passersby see this, the mother is taken into custody and the baby is taken to an orphanage. As Grenouille matures, he finds that he has a remarkable sense of smell, and that he can detect the smell given off by everything around him. From the orphanage, Grenouille (now played by Ben Whishaw) is sold to a tannery, where he works very diligently. While making a deliver in Paris, Grenouille is entranced by the scent of a young woman selling fruit. Even after he accidentally kills her (please don't act as if I'm spoiling anything with that revelation -- please re-read the title of the film), he can't stop smelling her body.

On his next outing, Grenouille meets a washed-up perfumer named Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). After dazzling Baldini with his olfactory abilities, Grenouille convinces the old man to let him be his apprentice. Grenouille learns a lot from Baldini (and vice-versa), but he doesn't gain the knowledge which he truly seeks (and has difficulty verbalizing): how to you capture and keep the scent of a person. So, Baldini sends Grenouille to the town of Grasse, where his desire to create the perfect scent will lead to a series of vicious crimes.

If nothing else, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is certainly an interesting film. Whether one is enthralled by it, bored by it, or repulsed by it, the film is sure to elicit a reaction from every viewer. The movie is based on the novel Das Parfum by Patrick Suskind, and according to the lone featurette on the DVD, many have called the novel unfilmable. And yet, director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) along with fellow screenwriters Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger undertook the challenge of bringing the novel to the screen.

I haven't read the novel, but after seeing the film, I can assume that there were three major challenges in the adaptation. First of all, this is a period piece set in 18th century France. Tykwer and his production designers have done a fantastic job of re-creating that period. Rumor has it that Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is the most expensive film ever produced by a German company and the budget is right there on the screen. While watching the film, there were several times when I turned to my wife and asked, "Is that a real location?" The settings in the movie are incredibly realistic (given the history of Europe), most probably are real. These attention to detail helps to immerse the viewer into the film. Also, this is one of those movies where everyone is dirty all of the time...sometimes that can be too realistic.

Secondly, this is a story about a man who has a super-human sense of smell who is also a killer. How can you bring that to the screen? Through the superb narration of John Hurt, we get a glimpse of Grenouille's inner world, and we are supplied many details about the period. Through some creative photography, Tykwer is able to illustrate Grenouille absorbing the scents of everything in his environment. Once we have grasped this, scenes such as Grenouille's first visit to Baldini's play very well.

But, the biggest challenge faced by Tykwer and company had to be that this is a story about a man who has a super-human sense of smell and is also a killer. At best, this is an ingenious idea, but at worst, it's somewhat silly, and some scenes border on the absurd. Perhaps this is the film's intention, but this makes Perfume: The Story of a Murderer comes across as very unbalanced. Much of the film is very serious and somewhat bleak, but the third act veers away from this and becomes very strange. The finale will leave many viewers speechless. But, after a moment of reflection, these same viewers will realize how ridiculous the whole thing is. The fact that Grenouille is a serial killer is right there in the title, but it may also be the film's greatest weakness. As portrayed in the film, Grenouille is a very odd, and rarely sympathetic character. The bulk of the murders are portrayed in a montage fashion. So, we don't really care for the killer and we don't get to know the victims. This makes the middle portion of the film come off as cold and distant.

Say what you will about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the movie will spark a conversation. The film presents the viewer with a fantastic premise set among a convincing landscape. But, as the story plays out, the main character becomes unlikable and the finale, while shocking, doesn't quite fit the rest of the movie. Beautifully made, and wonderfully acted, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer will have a very limited appeal, but those looking for a period piece that certainly isn't Jane Austen may love the film. Oh, and the film also taught me that redheads smell really good.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer sniffs its way onto DVD courtesy of Dreamworks Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as the transfer is quite sharp and clear. The picture shows very little grain and no defects from the source material. The film opens in the grey and dirty streets of Paris and eventually gives way to the beautiful countryside, and the colors remain faithful and stable throughout. I did note some video noise in the background of some shots, but otherwise the transfer was fine. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track is light on overwhelming surround sound and subwoofer effects, but a fireworks show provides some bass response and the crowd in the finale fills the rear speakers.

The Perfume: The Story of a Murderer DVD only contains one extra feature. "The Story of Perfume" (14 minutes), contains comments from director Tom Tykwer, the film's producers and the main cast. The discuss adapting the book for the film and the challenge of shooting a period piece. The actors discuss their characters and what it was like working with Tykwer.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long