It’s an engaging idea — to make a movie about the one sense least able to be evoked by film, the sense of smell. The great triumph of the cinema is the way it unites sound, words, and images to tell a story. Movies evoke our sense of touch. Lips brush a bare shoulder on screen or a CGI creature’s feathers are rendered with an exactness that is palpably tactile. And anyone who doesn’t think that film can convey an enticing taste has not seen many television commercials. But fragrance is the hardest sense to describe. Its subtlety seems to linger just outside the reach of words or images.
And I am sorry to say it also lies outside the reach of this film, which tries to be rapturous and evocative and heady but ends up just plain silly before it topples over into the mire of preposterous hooey. But there’s a lot to look at on the way there.
A baby is born in the middle of a fish market to a mother so used to stillborns that she kicks him under the table without noticing that he has inconveniently been born alive. She does not know that she has just given birth to a child who has the nasal equivalent of perfect pitch. He is better able to understand, appreciate, and sort all the smells of the world than anyone who has ever been born.
His name is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw). He grows up terribly abused and deprived, apprenticed to a cruel tanner, but all he longs for is the perfect scent. He is feral in his focus. One day, he sees a young woman who smells like his idea of heaven. He follows her, he grabs her — and then, trying to capture her scent, he accidentally kills her. And then we lurch from a sort of Dickensian struggle to a sort of 18th century Silence of the Lambs, as he murders young women to collect their essential fragrances into the ultimate perfume.
Director Tom Tykwer has a great eye, especially when it comes to red-heads, and the movie is filled with imaginative and striking images. Dustin Hoffman as a gifted but out of fashion perfumer with a great nose and Alan Rickman as the father of one of the young women Grenouille fixates on do their best to provide some heft to the story. But the dry narration by John Hurt and the essentially un-adaptable nature of the material disconnect us from the story and its characters so that by the end its developments lose any power.
Parents should know that this movie centers on a serial killer who murders young women, one a prostitute, and it includes nudity and sexual references and situations. There are disturbing themes and images. Characters drink and use some of the strong language of the era depicted.
Families who see this movie should talk about the impact that scent has on memory and longing. They may want to read the book, which was an international best-seller.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the director’s other films, including Run Lola Run, and Silence of the Lambs and The Great Train Robbery.