The film begins with the sentencing of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a notorious murderer. Between the reading of the sentence and the execution, the story of his life is told in flashback, beginning with his abandonment at birth in a French fish market. Raised in an orphanage, Grenouille grows into a strangely detached boy with a superhuman sense of smell. After growing to maturity as a tanner’s apprentice, he makes his first delivery to Paris, where he revels in the new odors. He focuses on a girl selling plums (Karoline Herfurth) and startles her with his behavior. To prevent her from crying out, he covers the girl’s mouth and unintentionally suffocates her. After realizing that she is dead, he strips her body naked and smells her until the scent fades. Afterwards, Grenouille becomes haunted by the desire to preserve scents forever.
After making a delivery to a perfume shop, Grenouille amazes the Italian owner, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), with his ability to create fragrances. He revitalizes the perfumer’s career with new formulas, demanding only that Baldini teach him how to convert scents into perfume. Baldini explains that all perfumes are harmonies of twelve individual scents, and may contain a theoretical thirteenth scent. He also tells a story about a perfume discovered in an Egyptian tomb that was so perfect that it caused everyone in the entire world to briefly believe they were in paradise the moment the bottle was opened. When Grenouille discovers that Baldini’s method of distillation will not capture the scents of all objects, such as iron chains and dead animals, he becomes depressed. After receiving a letter of presentation written by Baldini, Grenouille leaves to learn a different method in Grasse. En route to Grasse, Grenouille realises that he has no scent of his own, and is therefore a cipher. He decides that creating the perfect smell will prove his worth.
Upon arrival in Grasse, Grenouille catches the scent of Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood), daughter of the wealthy Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman)and decides that she will be his “thirteenth scent”, the lynchpin of his perfect perfume. Grenouille finds a job in Grasse under Madame Arnulfi (Corinna Harfouch) and Dominique Druot (Paul Berrondo) assisting with perfumes and learns the method of enfleurage to capture essential oils. After some experimenting with the general principles of enfleurage, he tries the method of distillation on a cotton-picker, which fails. After this, he attempts another method on a prostitute who refuses to carry on with the procedure and he kills her in order to get her scent. He succeeds in preserving the scent of the woman by shaving off her hair, covering her in animal fat, and then distilling the fat. Grenouille embarks on a killing spree, murdering beautiful young virgins and capturing their scents. He dumps the womens’ naked corpses around the city, creating an uproar that threatens to tear the city apart. After completing preserving the first twelve scents, Grenoille plans his attack on Laura. During a church sermon against him it is announced that an innocent has confessed to the murders. Richis remains unconvinced and flees the city with his daughter. Grenouille tracks her scent to a roadside inn and sneaks into her room that night. The next morning, Richis discovers Laura lying dead in her bed.
Soldiers capture Grenouille moments after he finishes preparing his perfume. On the day of his execution, he applies a drop of the perfume to himself. The executioner and the crowd in attendance are speechless at the beauty of the perfume. They declare Grenouille innocent before falling into a massive orgy. Richis, still convinced at Grenouille’s guilt, threatens him with his sword. Before managing to attack he becomes overwhelmed by the scent, falls to his knees and embraces Jean-Baptiste as his “son”. The town awakens and decides that the godly Grenouille could not have been the murderer. Walking out of Grasse unscathed, Grenouille has enough perfume to rule the world, but has discovered that it will not allow him to love or be loved like a normal person. Disenchanted by his aimless quest and tired of his life, he returns to the Paris. Meanwhile, Druot is convicted for the murders and hanged, since it was his backyard where the clothes ang hair of the victims were found. In Paris, Grenoille returns to the fish market where he was born and dumps the perfume on his his head. Overcome by the scent and in the belief that Grenouille is an angel, the nearby crowd devours him. The next day, one final drop of perfume falls from the open bottle, lying undisturbed on the ground.
I have no problem telling you that this film is one of those creepy, “artsy-fartsy” types. In other words, this is not for everyone. Some will like it, others won’t. I happen to fall in the latter.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is based on the novel of the same name and centers around olfactory genius Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s quest to replicate the scent he once sniffed off a plum girl in France. The scene in which he meets her is quite creepy. I mean, this guy, covered in all kinds of funk and muck from working in the tannery, walks up behind her and all of a sudden just starts sniffing her. A little while later, he tracks her down and basically accosted her in her little cubby hole thing and in the process of keeping her quiet, kills her. All for a scent!
As dark as this film is, the narration, done by John Hurt, seems to go a total different direction, and sort of resembles the tone of something like the Nanny McPhee or Pushing Daisies narration. Nothing wrong with, mind you, it just seemed rather odd. Having said that, the contrast was nice.
Casting for a film such as this could not have been easy, but powerhouses such as Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman take their relatively small roles and make magic out of them (as if we would expect less?).
The true challenge came from Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. This guy had to be naive and creepy, without making it seem that way. I have to commend the guy for pulling it off. However, the guy was supposed to be French, yet his British accent was as prominent as the nose on Dustin Hoffman’s face. Did they not have a dialect coach to teach this guy?
As I said, I didn’t like the film, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good picture. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I recommend to those of you that like this type of suspense drama and period pieces, or those that like these “artsy-fartsy” flicks. The rest of us can go find something more interesting.
3 out of 5 stars