PerfumeAlthough it was little seen in America, this 2006 adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s bestseller, about an scent-obsessed murderer in eighteenth century France, is a unique and ambitious production that deserves a look.

PERFUME is said to be the most costly German movie of all time. It’s certainly expansive, with painstaking period detail, sumptuous scenery and what look like thousands of extras. The director was the talented and eclectic Tom Tykwer, of DEADLY MARIA, THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and the international smash RUN LOLA RUN.

PERFUME, produced and co-scripted by the German mega-producer Bernd Eichinger, was a sizeable success in its native Europe (where the novel is held in extremely high regard), yet barely released in the US. Dreamworks, apparently figuring the film had made all the money it was going to in its European run, dumped it in a handful of theaters at the end of 2007 with scant publicity.

In mid eighteenth century France, in the bowels of a putrid Parisian fish market, a most remarkable individual named Jean Baptiste Grenouille is born. Grenouille grows up obsessed with all things fragrant, and as a teenager murders a young woman whose scent he longs to possess. This act decides the course of the rest of Grenouille’s life: he’s to become a perfumer, and a murderer.

Grenouille serves as an apprentice to the aging Italian perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, who teaches Grenouille to extract the scents from various objects. Following this Grenouille spends several years interred in a remote volcano. Returning to civilization, he again works for a perfumer, and learns even more about preserving scents. This knowledge inspires Grenouille to practice his trade on living people, with the aim of creating a master scent of the type he’s been longing to capture since his first murder.

Grenouille kills several innocent young women, after which he extracts their scents by coating their bodies with animal fat he subsequently distills to its fragrant essence. In the midst of all the killings the populace grows panicky and suspicious, especially the aristocratic Antoine Richis, who figures his gorgeous teen daughter Laura is likely the killer’s next target. Richis is correct, and not even whisking the girl off to a remote vacation home can save her life.

As for Grenouille, Laura’s smell completes his master scent—and just in time, as he’s found out and arrested. Condemned to death for his crimes, Grenouille figures it’s time to unleash his scent on the rabid crowd gathered to watch his execution, which has a most shocking result…

PERFUME’S epic canvas may seem unsuited to the talents of Tom Tykwer, a filmmaker known for more modest fare, yet it contains all the passion and energy of previous Tykwer triumphs like DEADLY MARIA and RUN LOLA RUN. The period detail is meticulous, yet PERFUME is thankfully bereft of the stodginess of most historical cinema. It also follows the oft-gruesome events of the novel extremely closely, which is an achievement in itself (a Hollywood production would most certainly have distorted and/or toned them down considerably), and even approximates its subjective point of view.

Obviously there’s no way to properly dramatize the sense of smell onscreen (as Patrick Suskind did in prose), but I believe Tykwer comes as close as possible to doing so, often utilizing near-experimental editing to convey Grenouille’s olfactory intoxication that never feels distracting or show-offy. There’s also no way to depict the climactic mass orgy without seeming silly or overwrought, but Tykwer makes a conditional success of the sequence, presenting it as, essentially, a hallucinatory ballet with hundreds of impeccably choreographed extras.

The one area where the film doesn’t excel is the acting. While there are no bad performances, it’s a sad fact that none of the actors really stand out. That includes a competent but unremarkable Ben Whishaw as Grenouille and a thoroughly bland Rachel Hurd-Wood as the supposedly irresistible object of his affection. As for the two major star turns—Dustin Hoffman as Baldini and Alan Rickman as Richis—both are strong but ultimately make little impression, ending up as, essentially, joint parts of the impeccably coifed scenery. Perhaps the most compelling performance is by John Hurt as the unseen narrator, who succeeds in lending a dark and compelling fairy tale ambiance to what might otherwise play like a misogynistic exercise in impeccably coifed nastiness.

Vital Statistics

Dreamworks Pictures/Constantin Film

Director: Tom Tykwer
Producer: Bernd Eichinger
Screenplay: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer
Cinematography: Frank Griebe
Editing: Alexander Berner
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman, Karoline Herfurth, Simon Chandler, John Hurt, Guillermo Ayesa, Sian Thomas