I talk a lot about films, and in recent weeks I have spoken most about only two topics: how much I hated Real Steel and how bizarre this film is.
Jean Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw) was born into an 18th century French society that was decidedly pungent – and his birthing scene is equally graphic. After being literally left for dead in the mud he is instantly orphaned and shovelled off to a dingy and – yes smelly
– orphanage, where his cries and hunger inspire the other orphans to try to kill him.
This early sequence is as brilliant as it is gross and depressing. And it is quite gross and depressing.
But Jean-Baptiste survives of course, and grows up to adulthood an able bodied, albeit nearly mute and emotionless, young man. A young man with nostrils with no equal, stuck in a role where he could not take advantage of his scent skills.
So Jean-Baptiste became a renaissance Rain Man of sorts, an obsolete olfactory aficionado. A man with no prejudice against any odour regardless of how unpleasant it might seem, but also oblivious of the niceties and morals of modern society.
That is until a chance meeting with a perfumer named Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a mid-tier artiste frustrated by his inability to distance himself from the more sought after perfumers of the land. Baldini initially ignores Jean-Baptiste’s claims regarding his abilities, but this swiftly changes once Baldini recognises the innate genius of the awkward creepy young man, and more tellingly the commercial prospects that having a man on staff with his skills.
In the short while the pair operate as master and apprentice Baldini passes on his limited knowledge regarding the techniques of scent manufacturing, with which Jean-Baptiste promptly utilises to create some of the most aesthetically pleasing perfumes possible.
But Jean-Baptiste is far from satisfied with his incredible advances in both skills and social standing, he openly yearns to make his mark on the globe through the creation of the ‘ultimate’ scent. To do this he decides he must head away from the city…
I can’t go too much further without over-disclosing, however this film starts gross and heads to creepy, before ending in an orgy of olfactory over-indulgence that must be seen to be disbelieved.
For lengthy sections of the film Jean-Baptiste is the lone figure onscreen as he continues his bizarre quest, and as he is practically mute and almost robotic in his actions this makes for some tough going. Peripheral characters waft in and out of the story as they enter Jean-Baptitse’s orbit, some only for a few moments.
As Jean-Baptiste Ben Whishaw has a particularly thankless role which he performs admirably, he commands attention his dull expressionless eyes, simultaneously unnerving and yet somehow demanding sympathy, even as he carries out acts that are especially heinous to you and I but merely necessary to him.
Perfume: The story of a murderer is not a film that I will revisit again and again, except in my mind. I also can’t describe the two scenes that scream out to be told. I can only say that it is for the most part a straightforward telling of a quite remarkable and impossible tale, which loses it more than a little in the final few moments.
And it is those few moments that you will be describing to incredulous others for years…
Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. I can’t recommend that you see Perfume. But I can guarantee that you won’t unsee it if you do.