Monday, February 8, 2010

Regarding Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Jason Pyles

The Premise:

Perhaps the most notable and unusual element of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is its premise: Consider how difficult it would be to write a screenplay for the cinema — a visual medium that is supposed to “show, not tell” — about a guy who has a superhero-like sense of smell. There were several occasions, especially near the beginning, when we hear the actor sniffing loudly. But this could have easily veered off into the comical. It’s decidedly difficult to visually illustrate that a person has a talent for smelling, especially considering that the sense of smell itself is more abstract than concrete. (This movie may have worked really well in Smell-O-Vision!) Nevertheless, this film improves upon itself as it moves from the conspicuous sniffing to the depiction of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s visualization of what’s happening beyond the scope of his other senses, such as the way he could smell and therefore know that the perfume-school-instructor couple were having sex. (This smelling predicament reminds me a little of Charlie Kaufman’s challenge to write about flowers in “Adaptation.”)

The Actors:

I never thought I’d write something like this, but Dustin Hoffman is the low-point of “Perfume.” His character (and overall performance) is too close to the wacky role he played in “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” which is an altogether unpleasant affair. Technically, “Perfume” preceded that one, but having seen “Magorium” first, I guess I lose. Hoffman’s familiar face took something away from the obscure gem that is this film. Alan Rickman is another well-known actor who appears in “Perfume,” but he is invariably a compelling screen presence. And yes, I agree with Andy, that Ben Whishaw as Grenouille gave an unsettling performance. That is the kind of dark role, I would imagine, that would end up negatively affecting the actor, like Heath Ledger’s The Joker.

Bleak Book-Ends:

My favorite parts of “Perfume” are its dismal beginning and ending. Grenouille’s arrival into the world is a profoundly sad sequence. And then — spoiler alert — his resignation to allow himself to be devoured in the end was both startling and troubling.

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