Gangly English actor Ben Whishaw stars as the freakish Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a misbegotten orphan who grows up amid the squalor of pre-Revolutionary Paris both blessed and cursed with olfactory abilities far beyond those of mere mortals. The world others perceive and understand primarily through sight and sound Grenouille perceives through smell. He is tormented, however, by his inability to preserve those smells, an obsession that eventually leads him, fatefully, into the employ of a fading Parisian perfumer named Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman).
The match is magic — Grenouille's ability to instantly unravel the recipes of Baldini's competitors and further improve upon their chemistry resurrects Baldini's business and sends him soaring once again to the top of his trade. In exchange, Baldini teaches Grenouille the craft of capturing scent — the art of making perfume. But Baldini's methods are limited and cannot do what Grenouille is determined to do, namely capture and preserve the scent of individual human beings. Already this obsession has led him to accidentally kill a young woman, and, as he ventures south in search of more refined techniques, his inward destination will take him irreversibly toward darkness.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is an undeniably fascinating adventure, by turns disturbing and enthralling with its pitch-perfect recreation of a world beset by piety and debauchery, boundless beauty and incomprehensible squalor. Nowhere, however, is the evocation of those contrasts stronger than in Whishaw's captivating performance. Though he is hardly the grotesque depicted in the book, his almost gollum-like ability to manipulate audience sentiment, toying with and challenging their dual capacities for empathy and revulsion, is a thing of thespian wonder. And though Whishaw's supporting players — particularly the lovably miscast Hoffman — never quite seem to be on the same page or even in the same movie, Tykwer's overall realization is so forcefully evocative that the flaws seem to disappear like fading blemishes on a magnificent tapestry.
There is Oscar-caliber work at almost all levels here, beginning with the exceptional adaptation by Tykwer, producer Bernd Eichinger and French director (and brother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) Andrew Birkin. Also of note is Frank Griebe's haunting, luminous cinematography, aided and abetted by the equally fine work of editor Alexander Berner, production designer Uli Hanisch, costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud and regular Tykwer composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (Tykwer is also credited as a co-composer).
Thematically, the movie can't really capture the density of ideas manifest in the novel, but it does preserve the book's essence, visualized with such uncommon flair and flourish that it becomes, in many ways, an equally precious achievement all on its own. Not for all tastes, clearly, but for many certain to be a visceral feast.
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Rachel Hurd-Wood
Director: Tom Tykwer
Screenwriters: Andrew Birkin & Bernd Eichinger & Tom Tykwer
Producer: Bernd Eichinger
Rating: R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality and disturbing images
Running time: 147 min.
Release date: December 27, 2006 ltd