“Perfume” is a film that comes to us with impeccable art-house credentials: It’s a story about aestheticism, the appreciation of smells, and thus bathed in sensuality. Its director, Tom Tykwer, is responsible for the art-house hit “Run Lola Run,” as well as an ethereal adaptation of a Krzystof Kieslowski script with “Heaven.” The film is based on a critically acclaimed Euro-best seller by Patrick Suskind, and it’s shot in gorgeous, rapturous compositions by Frank Griebe.

As usual with a Tykwer film, “Perfume” is full of visual panache, images that sweep you away with their lushness or daring or sheer imagination. So why, despite all this, does something feel so horribly wrong?

Let us turn to the film’s full title, which is “Perfume: The Story Of A Murder.” The film’s lead character is indeed a killer, and a rather odious and despicable one at that. You’d think that a director from Germany — where just 50-odd years ago they had a Nazi regime that used the remains of its concentration camp victims as fertilizer and soap — would have second thoughts about making a film in which the lead character murders young women to boil them down into essential oils.

Director Tom Tykwer
Run Time 147 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (March 16, 2007)

That, however, is exactly what Tykwer has done in “Perfume,” a movie that must be the first magic-realist look at serial killing. Tykwer embarks on the hopeless task of asking audiences to empathize with 18th-century Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who finds the gratification of his own desires more important than the lives of others. And, the movie dares to say, with its empty-headed liberal sensibility, the poor man can’t help it! He’s not so much a psychopath as — get ready for it — a victim of his own preternaturally hypersensitive sense of smell.

“Perfume” follows the life of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a man born in the wrong place with the wrong talent. He’s born to a fishmonger who, busy at the market and not needing an extra mouth to feed, steps out of sight to give birth to her child, cut the cord, and discard him on a pile of rotting fish. (Tykwer does a good job of visually conveying the squalor and stench of urban life of the period.) Caught in the act, she’s sent to the gallows, and Grenouille to an orphanage.

As he grows older, Grenouille discovers his sense of smell is amazingly acute, able to sense and differentiate things with incredible sensitivity and accuracy. He’s put to work in near servitude in a tannery, but the first time he’s allowed out to journey into Paris, he finds himself overwhelmed by smells.

One, in particular, entices him: that of a fair young lass selling fruit on the street. He stalks her to her home, creeps up close from behind to sniff her, and when she tries to scream in alarm, he smothers her, accidentally killing her. Frantically smelling her dead body, he is dismayed to discover that wonderful fragrance disappearing with the onset of death.

You’d think the lesson here would be easy: Don’t kill people so they don’t lose that wonderful scent. But no, Grenouille is a collector, one who wants to keep what he smells, so he embarks on a plan to capture them, which involves killing and distilling people.

His acute sense of smell lands him a job as an assistant to a famed perfumier, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, hamming it up so much that with two pieces of bread you could make a sandwich), who teaches him the art of creating scents. Grenouille then moves on to Glace, the Mecca of perfumiers, supposedly to further his career. But when he spies a redheaded beauty similar to the one he killed before (Rachel Hurd Wood), he’s inspired to start stalking and killing various young women to perfect his quest for capturing the scent of virginity and create the ultimate perfume. The redhead is his ultimate goal.

Now, if Grenouille was portrayed as a creepy, twisted, but slightly sad killer — think “Psycho” — this might make for a film, but Tykwer remains resolutely noncommittal, even sympathetic, with his raping, murdering hero. The violence Grenouille commits is consistently kept off-screen, so we don’t have to confront it; indeed, the crowd baying for Grenouille’s death, after he’s caught for murdering a dozen of the city’s daughters, are portrayed in a worse light than Grenouille ever is. Rachel Hurd Wood, who plays one of Grenouille’s victims, has even declared in interviews “he’s not evil.”

There’s this idea that’s infected the movies — in films like “The Cell” or “Hannibal” — of the serial killer as an aesthete, as someone with advanced sensibilities for whom killing is an art form. Fascinating people, really, if you get past the snuff aspect of their hobby.

What utter crap. Isn’t it about time films return to showing these sick, twisted bastards with neural misfires as frightening whack-jobs, rather than glorifying them as artists?

It’s instructive to compare “Perfume” with “Max,” which examined Hitler as a young man trying to pursue a career in art, before he slowly became seduced by the idea of hate politics as a kind of performance art. “Max” was roundly condemned for “humanizing” Hitler despite the fact that it clearly said the following: Art must be an outlet for rage and insanity, not an incitement to it. “Perfume,” on the other hand, offers art as a lame excuse for murder. Yes, it’s unfortunate that all those young girls had their lives cut short, their bodies violated, but, oh, what a fragrance! Not.

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