The first image in Tom Tykwer’s PERFUME is of a nose in close-up emerging from the twilight. The first sound is of its drawing a deep breath. It is stark, it is simple, and it is perfect. Smell is the point of this decadent gothic tale, and it is the driving force of the nose’s owner, Grenouille, an singular lad with a preternaturally developed olfactory sense that leads him to acclaim, infamy, and to madness. Not necessarily in that order.
It is Tykwer’s particular cinematic gift that he can recreate the inner universe that his characters inhabit to such an extent that said subjective universe seems, if not normal, somehow perversely seductive. From Lola’s flat-out sprint across Berlin to the inner workings of an insane asylum wherein dwells a princess, Tykwer’s films explore territory that would seem unfilmable and renders them into landscapes that are haunting and sublime on their own terms. And so it is with PERFUME based on the Patrick Susskind novel of the same name.
Born in the unimaginable filth of a mid-18th century French fish market and sold off to a tannery from the orphanage to which he was almost immediately consigned after his birth, it’s little wonder that in this world of casual cruelty Grenouille is a prime candidate for mental imbalance. A chance meeting with a formerly fashionable perfumer (Dustin Hoffman in Enlightenment approved poodle wig and lipstick) leads him to his destined career mixing scents. But Grenouille is uninterested in riches, only in capturing the scent of everything, including, after an unfortunate encounter with a nubile young woman, the aroma of young womanhood. It’s an undertaking that, unfortunately for the women involved, necessitates their demise.
Casting Ben Wishaw as Grenouille was the first stroke of genius here. He is beautiful in a dark, otherworldly way. It is, though, the way the actor maintains such a hold on Grenouille’s essential innocence about the ways of the world that creates the exquisite tension necessary to carry the film’s momentum. The audience isn’t manipulated at any time into truly wanting to see the mad perfumer succeed in his heinous quest, but at the same time, art conspires to make it difficult to see this solitary young man disappointed. Told from his point of view and his alone, it is clear that he is giving these girls immortality, not cutting short their lives so much as giving them apotheosis as a gift of his worship of their yet untapped divinity.
Trickier still than making Grenouille a worthy protagonist is the problem of making scent visible, in particular the ones he can distill from young women. Art conspires again to make the result curiously effective in Tykwer’s deft hands. As with the film as a whole, there is a decided lushness in everything, be it the squalor of the fish market or the formal garden of a nobleman (Alan Rickman) whose flame-tinted daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) becomes Grenouille’s target. There is decadence and there is subtlety, and such is the careful layering of image, sound, and atmosphere that the aroma of rotting fish, or of a wagon full of tuberoses, is as palpable as Grenouille’s longing to own them. When the narrator speaks of Grenouille’s ability to smell everything and that all aromas are the same to him, equally intoxicating, the scent of rocks, for example, unexpectedly becomes eminently imaginable.
Spiked with a mordent humor, not to mention a witty commentary on politics then and now, as well as performances from the other players that are as vibrant as Wishaw’s is brooding, PERFUME is Tykwer’s most accomplished film to date. He embraces the fairy tale, making a virtue of the improbable and magic of the artifice, enchanting the audience in spite of itself.