TOM TYKWER'S Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on the German novel by Patrick Süskind, introduces the movie-going public to one of the strangest antiheroes of all time: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an 18th-century Parisian with a preternaturally developed sense of smell. Born in a fishmonger's stall and raised in an orphanage, the unlikeable, inarticulate Grenouille believes that his mission in life is to learn how to preserve smells—in particular, the elusive scent of a beautiful young woman. To that end, he takes an apprenticeship with perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (played with an off-kilter campiness by Dustin Hoffman)—but upon learning that Baldini has no method for capturing more esoteric scents (metal, cats, people), Grenouille sets about devising his own technique.
It's here that director Tykwer (Run Lola Run) turns the film from a rich and fascinating historical fiction to a baffling piece of homicidal allegory. Attempting to make the perfect perfume, Grenouille starts killing young women and distilling the essences of their smells. All of the violence in Perfume is depicted with a cartoonish detachment that suggests that no one is really being hurt—making it all the more unsettling when the camera lingers on Grenouille sniffing the bodies of dead girls.
Perfume is undeniably beautiful, and relentless in conjuring the visceral response to an image that is perhaps as close as film can come to replicating the pleasure and revulsion that smells can evoke. Every gorgeous frame suggests profundity and insight (even, maybe especially, those scenes that make your skin crawl), and it's tempting to go along on the visual ride without minding much about what else is happening. Perfume does not, however, stand up to more serious scrutiny: The tone is confusingly inconsistent, ranging from near-farce to reverent allegory, and the sensationalist ending rings hollow. Reportedly, Stanley Kubrick once claimed that Süskind's novel was unfilmable—and while Tykwer gives it a valiant effort, his lush but unsatisfying effort seems to prove that Kubrick was right.