There is absolutely no reason why 'Perfume: the story of a murderer' should work on screen. In a rare cinematic accomplishment, the story relies, almost depends, on us to accept a sensory perception that is difficult to imagine in a visual medium - that of smell. In ways that can only be experienced, perhaps not even described, 'Perfume' transports the scents of 18th Century Paris to us in all its raw, unadulterated grittiness. This is most evident in a grueling opening scene, narrated by John Hurt, where Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born amidst the reeking stink of his mothers fish stand. Left to die amongst the rotten carcass of fish meat by a woman who has experienced four previous still births and who has no reason to believe this one would be any different, he is saved by the cries of his despair. Orphaned and alone, he spends his early childhood in a state of perpetually trying to survive, working in a tannery till one day he visits the part of town where his kind do not set foot, and meets master perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), who is captivated by the youngsters affinity and ability to discern the most untraceable of ingredients in perfumes.
Working as an apprentice for Baldini, Grenouille learns the fine, delicate art of creating and preserving smells through the process of distillation. Not content by the limitations of this method – he has loftier ambitions, to preserve human scent – he bids farewell and leaves for the town of Grasse, then the centre of France's fragrance industry, but not before murdering, some may say by accident, a fruit vendor on the streets, whose odour he relishes. This is where the film delicately makes its point, once and only once, about why Grenouille is the way he is. If the soul of beings is their scent, then Grenuell has no soul, for he cannot smell himself. Throughout the film he is never presented as bad or evil, simply amoral or ascetic. Once in Grasse, during the latter half of the film, his actions seem to stem from an obsessive need, not one of desire. He commits murders here, many and in quick succession, perhaps too easily for the benefit of the films thrills (think of him as a Parisian 'Jack the ripper'), but these are strictly a means to an end – to create that ultimate fragrance from a concoction of female beauty and fragility.
Director Tom Tykwer does his source material justice, capturing with poise the elegance of the time period. The sets, the feel, the colours are all enchanting and the film looks like a million bucks (it is the most expensive German film ever made, and it shows in the elaborate reconstruction of sets). A little distracting, at first at least, is the mixture of English dialects making the film feel like a period drama in parts, but this quickly subsides. Perhaps the strongest point of dispute for the audience will likely be the ending or the last segment, which is absurd, a touch ridiculous, yet in all likelihood surely one of the most perverse things you are likely to see on the big screen all year. Even though I was not convinced by it, feeling that it was ill-fitting and a little incredulous, I have by now come to expect this kind of a closing act from Tykwer, having also been left cold by the way he ended the spectacularly written and directed 'Heaven'. Up until this point, 'Perfume' too is marvelous and a bizarre manifestation of skill and imagination. - Faizan Rashid