Scents and sensibility

Perfume

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click to enlarge SCENT OF A WOMAN: Ben Whishaw takes in the aroma of Karoline Herfurth in Perfume. - Dreamworks Distribution LLC
Dreamworks Distribution LLC
SCENT OF A WOMAN: Ben Whishaw takes in the aroma of Karoline Herfurth in Perfume.

The language is beautiful (especially as luxuriated in by narrator John Hurt), but Perfume is mostly communicated through a sensual symbiosis of images and sounds. And yet, if ever there was a movie that cried out for Odorama, this is it.

Faithfully adapting Patrick Suskind's wonderful cult novel, director Tom Twyker offers up the life and times of one Jean Baptiste Grenouille, a somewhat repellent 18th-century Frenchman with a preternaturally developed sense of smell — an oft-neglected sense that Grenouille and the film place at the very nexus of existence. Irony of ironies, though, this supreme appreciator of smells gives off absolutely no odor himself — almost as if he doesn't quite exist in the same physical dimension as the rest of humankind — and the movie vividly brings to life the ineffable otherness of this inscrutable creature, this man who fell to earth. Grenouille remains one of the most memorably strange observers in all fiction (he's right up there with The Tin Drum's Oskar), and experiencing the world through his eager yet imperfectly comprehending senses makes us all feel a bit like strangers in a strange land.

Twyker (working territory infinitely more refined than the rat-a-tat razzle-dazzle of his Run Lola Run) retains the agreeably over-ripe essence of Suskind's novel while expanding its moral scope, transforming Grenouille into a sympathetic monster in the classic mold of the one created by Dr. Frankenstein, where monstrousness is essentially innocence gone tragically wrong. Much like Frankenstein's creation — who throws a little girl into the lake only because he runs out of petals — or Of Mice and Men's Lenny loving his puppies to death, Grenouille's pivotal moment arrives when he accidentally kills a beautiful peddler in his eagerness to inhale her aroma/aura.

From there, it's a short step to our antihero's lifelong obsession with capturing and preserving all human scents — a goal tantamount to a desire for domination over death, but one that necessitates destroying the human vessel in order to immortalize its essence. At once noble, blasphemous, pathetic and stark raving bonkers, Grenouille ultimately transforms into a Nietzschian Jack the Ripper, but even when Perfume threatens to turn into this week's serial killer thriller, the movie remains utterly unique — a heartbreaking love song to beauty, sung by a beast of a man who, lacking a soul of his own, attempts to feed upon the soul of the world.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (R) Stars Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman and John Hurt. Opens Jan. 5 at local theaters. 4 stars

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