'Perfume': Raising a Stink

Ben Whishaw plays a man addicted to his sense of smell in
Ben Whishaw plays a man addicted to his sense of smell in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," with Karoline Herfurth. (By Jurgen Olczyk)
Friday, January 5, 2007

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,"based on Patrick Suskind's 1985 bestseller, works on such a high wire, it ought to get points for derring-do.

A big-budget spectacle by European standards (about $67 million), it's set in the foulest regions of 18th-century Paris, features gruesome killings and asks audiences to become acquainted with the finer details of perfume extraction. So, it's simultaneously arty, arcane and nasty.

It follows the misadventures of a man-child who's keenly attuned and addicted to his sense of smell. The extra wrinkle is, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (newcomer Ben Whishaw) is so determined to extract the ultimate scent -- the one he remembers from his first and only love -- he resorts to serial murder to reproduce it.

"Perfume," featuring the gravelly narration of John Hurt, has its moments, particularly as a visual experience. The squalor of slums, the glitz of high-society gowns and the gorgeous countryside of southern France, for instance, take you to another time. But the film is an uneven experience. Fans of the book will appreciate its earnest attempts to capture much of the novel's details, spirit and texture. But most will see director Tom Tykwer's failure to find the tonal balance that reprises the novel's arch irony and that makes us appreciate Jean-Baptiste's olfactory sensibilities despite his heartless serial killing. And few will applaud Dustin Hoffman's annoying performance as an Italian perfumer. There's also the matter of evoking Jean-Baptiste's sense of smell in a medium made for sight and sound. Tykwer, best known for his fabulously kinetic "Run, Lola, Run," has no choice but to convey it visually. Thus, we are forever shooting in and out of nostrils, then cutting to extreme close-ups of whatever's being smelled: a luscious virginal girl or the writhing maggots inside a dead rat. After a while, good readers, we got nose-cammed out.

-- Desson Thomson

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererR, 148 minutesContains overall intensity, mature themes, violence, nudity and profanity. Area theaters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company