Death and Sniffing

'Perfume' is pretty, but its need for constant narration dooms it to mediocrity

You know that scene in every movie about a musician where the musician plays his or her song, and all the on-screen characters are blown away by how totally awesome it is, but you, in the audience, just heard another crappy, derivative pop song that sounded like it was written by your 12-year-old sister upon the purchase of her first guitar? And you're thinking, "They like that?" And yes, they like it, because they're characters in a movie, and it's their job to pretend that crap is caviar.

That scene also applies to films about poets and writers and many other sorts of artists: We just have to pretend that the crap we heard is the best poem since someone strangled Rod McKuen to death at a be-in.

In Perfume, that problem doesn't exist, because the main character is a virtuoso of scents, and you can't smell a movie. So when the master perfumer opens the bottle just created by young Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) and declares it glorious, we can at least take his word for it. Plus, the master perfumer is played by Dustin Hoffman, and his right nostril alone is big enough to fit all the food that Paris Hilton vomits up in a year, so he seems like the kind of guy who knows what smells good.

While the fact that you can't smell the film covers up one problem, it creates a number of others, most notably the need for constant narration.

The film tells the tale of Grenouille, a strange mutant superbeing with the bad luck to have been born in Paris in the 18th century. While incapable of most human feelings, and barely verbal, Grenouille can discern and identify scents with an uncanny precision. Living in a world of smells instead of sights and sounds, he follows his nose from an orphanage to a perfumer's shop to a great perfume factory, leaving in his wake a trail of wondrous odors and dead bodies.

The book is based on the novel Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind, a pulp-thriller that somehow attained high-art kudos. It's a fun book, in a sleazy sort of way, with lots of cheap literary devices and titillation, but in spite of that, it's ill-suited to being filmed. The problem is that the narrative focuses on the flow of odors, and with the exception of Polyester, most movies have eschewed modern-odor technology in favor of the more primitive sound-and-picture system developed nearly 100 years ago.

To deal with this, director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run; Heaven) resorted to a lot of voiceover narration. John Hurt, who's been making quite a career for himself as a narrator (Manderlay, Hiroshima, Dogville) does the honors, but he narrates the whole thing like a deadly serious Rankin/Bass Christmas special, in children's story rhythms, but with the gravitas of Tom Brokaw announcing the death of Lindsay Lohan. It's a little much, and it comes off as condescending.

On the plus side, the film is glorious to look at. Tykwer really knows how to spend the arts budget, and he captures things about the 18th century that most directors miss. First off, almost all the characters are dirty, even those with a little cash in their pockets. The idea of showering daily and washing one's hands after contact with offal and dung are actually of pretty recent vintage, and it's strangely fun to see grime-encrusted fingernails on the hands of wealthy shopkeepers. Also, the women have hair on their bodies. This is because, in the 1700s, women's bodies spontaneously grew hair under their arms and on their pubic mounds. Strangely, in the 1980s, all women's bodies became hairless, and this became retroactively true throughout history, at least according to movies, the art form of truth.

The costumes are also great: The clothing, while reasonably period-accurate, looks worn, with splitting seams and dirty ruffles. But the strongest visual aspect of the film are the grand scenes with hundreds of extras, expertly photographed by Tykwer and cinematographer Frank Griebe. As a result of their skill in the epic shot, they turn in the best orgy scene since Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Hundreds of classical French people are lovingly photographed shedding their clothes and writhing about in a village square, as the French are wont to do.

But in spite of the cool visuals, the film isn't terribly successful. Most of the actors do English accents, because 18th-century French people obviously spoke with English accents. And the performances are a little too Harry Potter to be taken seriously. (Professor Snape even has a starring role!) The soundtrack is loaded with overly imposing vocal choruses, as though to say, "Hey, this is important. Let's sing the feelings!" And the music tends to swell up majestically, which I personally hate, but then I hate Christmas and love.

Still, in spite of some flaws in the script and acting, Perfume is reasonably rewarding due to the visual grandeur. I would only warn potential viewers not to be eating during the first 10 minutes of the film, which features a woman giving birth onto a pile of rotting fish. As a critic, I wish this had a been a metaphor for the whole movie, so I could do a whole series of Gene Shalit-esque puns on how the movie stinks. Sadly, it's not all that bad a film. Also sadly, it's not all that good.

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