Perfume (2006)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

   

Once considered "un-filmable" due to its themes, Perfume, the Story of a Murderer is an intense, emotionally disturbing film based on the controversial novel by Patrick Süskind. Set in the 18th century in France, it follows the adventures of a mentally imbalanced young man by the name of Jean-Baptiste (Ben Whishaw) who is born in the midst of a fish market with an advanced sense of smell. His mother is hanged for attempting to murder her infant and he is sent off to an orphanage, where he is mistreated and reviled by his peers. After being sold to a tannery as a labor man, Jean-Baptiste comes across a scent shop run by once-renowned perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). His natural skills at distinguishing what scents go into each perfume and in precise measurement impress the old man so much that he allows Jean-Baptiste to use his stores.

 

Desirous of possessing and keeping every possible scent, Jean-Baptiste attempts numerous failed experiments but it is not until he discovers how the scent of flowers is made that he becomes out of control. Each perfumer needs 12 essential oils from which to create the perfect scents and with a heartless single-mindedness, Jean-Baptiste becomes determined to build his collection from beautiful young women. The murderous rampage that strikes a small town terrifies the locals and causes the noblemen to take extreme measures to protect their daughters. Among them is widowed merchant Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), who is overly protective of his alluring daughter Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood)... but who also has caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste. He wants her scent for his final essential oil.

 

Audiences either find this film enthralling or absolutely hate it. I have read reports of various individuals finding it "boring and strange," and in some respects they have a point. The film is so set on impressing the audience with the importance of its murderer's eccentricities and obsession with scent that it spends a great deal of time exploring different random images -- flower petals, long reddish hair, and Jean-Baptiste burying his nose in whatever strikes his fancy. The cinematography and filming style is gorgeous as a result, but can also be overly hideous and repulsive -- scenes in the fish market, his unpleasant birth, and the death of his mother are particularly grotesque when contrasted with the lush French countryside and radiant reddish locks of many of the ladies that meet an unfortunate end. Then there is the disturbing nature of the crimes themselves -- and an equally unnerving conclusion.

 

While none of the murders are particularly graphic (we do see one woman accidentally smothered; another is robbed and her throat cut), there are dozens of shots of their naked bodies (including bare breasts), as well as sexual content (brief but graphic). Toward the end of the film, the masses become aroused by his perfect perfume and there is a large-scale orgy -- mostly depicted from a distance but still revolting. It is presumed that a man is cannibalized or torn into pieces by a crowd. There are a handful of mild profanities. The movie, as you can imagine, pushes the boundaries of good taste and is rather repulsive. I saw it years ago and it left a rather bad taste in my mouth, but recently watched it again in edited format and it still maintained its shock value without forcing me to sit through the content a second time. The performances are quite good and for what it is, it is masterfully filmed but hardly a tale that will leave you with a smile on your face. If nothing else, it reminds us that not all stories have happy endings.

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