- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

Like the best-selling Patrick Suskind novel upon which it was based, the Tom Tykwer-helmed film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” attempts to portray the destructive and disturbing life of a smell fetishist. Unfortunately, this cinematic re-imagining proves that in celluloid, visuals can overwhelm the subtleties of other, more delicate senses.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw in a chilling performance) is an orphan living in 18th-century France whose only real possession is a superhuman sense of smell. He is a violent and volatile young man whose only reason for continuing to survive in his harsh environment, we’re told, is to possess all the world’s many scents.

When the first whiff of a beautiful young woman’s fragrance wafts through his nose, he is transfixed and becomes desperate to find a way to permanently preserve this heavenly smell. (Oddly, it seems to dissipate once the source is dead.)

To this end, he secures an apprenticeship with a perfumer (played by Dustin Hoffman, who sports the most bizarre New Yorker/Italian/French/British accent) and learns by trial and error — er, trial and murder — what technique can help solve his problem. By the time he targets the daughter of merchant Antoine Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood and Alan Rickman, respectively), he has perfected his crime of passion.

Mr. Tykwer (the German writer-director best known for his propulsively hip 1998 action-thriller “Run Lola Run”) and his team coax an emotional performance out of their lead and some supporting cast members, but Mr. Hoffman doesn’t do much here. They also convincingly re-create the time period through rich, ambitious sets and action sequences.

However, “Perfume’s” tale is graphic, gruesome and gory enough to make even fans of “Seven” and “The Silence of the Lambs” squirm — in fact, nearly 10 people squirmed right out of the theater at a preview screening.

True, Mr. Tykwer manages some lovely shots: lush montages of baskets of herbs and flowers, vast vistas of lavender fields, and one particularly neat instance where, while the protagonist lies supine, the camera visually traces his olfactory discovery of the odors around him, from earth to grass to pond.

However, the scenes that are likely to stick with audiences are the stronger, more pungent ones — like close-ups of nostrils sniffing (for some reason even this seemingly innocuous moment feels slightly perverted), shots of fish guts crawling with maggots and lengthy scenes of hooks scraping white goo off the naked bodies of murdered women. To say Mr. Tykwer doesn’t leave much to the imagination is a serious understatement.

The film reminds us that while reading a printed page, our minds can tone down or play up certain elements to create the perfect balance of realism (so we believe) and mystery (so we remember it’s a fantasy). Here, the powerful details stretch the spectrum too far at both ends. On-screen, the vivid images are at times too lurid and thus too real, and at other times, they are too ludicrous to take seriously — particularly the orgiastic ending, if you make it that far.

**

TITLE: “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”

RATING: R (Socially deviant behavior, graphic violence, nudity and disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Tom Tykwer. Screenplay by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Tykwer based on the novel by Patrick Suskind.

RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes

WEB SITE: www.perfumemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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