Perfume is one of those films I desperately wanted to work, but ultimately, no matter how I tried to fit its pieces together in my head could not make a coherent peace with.
Perfume is the story of a boy, Jean-Baptiste, who is born with an extraordinary sense of smell. Desperately wanting to preserve the smell of a girl he has accidentally murdered, he endeavors to become a perfumer and embarks on a series of murders to create a perfect and powerful perfume made from the scents of 13 girls (3 chords of 4 scent notes, plus a thirteenth, the magical one to bind them all together).
Jean-Baptiste’s story is a compelling one, thanks largely to the strange, scuttling and nearly mute performance of Ben Whishaw who manages to make Jean-Baptiste both an innocent and a dangerous obsessive. Without such fine work from Whishaw, Perfume may well have been unwatchable in its many distracting and contradictory flaws.
Among Perfume‘s many problems is its inability to settle on a tone. Is this a dark fairytale? Is it magical realism? Is it a cautionary tale? Historical drama or romance? Quick cuts to various scenes of odiferous grotesquerie and an excellent voiceover open Perfume, and it seems, at first that we’re bound for something very serious that’s fully willing to embrace the discomfort of discussing smell, both good and bad. This promising, if difficult, opening is soon utterly pushed a side by an intolerable performance by Dustin Hoffman as an Italian perfumer. His accent isn’t just terrible, but inconsistent and his mannerism absurd. Is it bad acting or bad directing? It’s unclear, but it’s the first of Perfume‘s massive and poorly handled tonal shifts.
Other problems, that might be less noticeable to a less punctilious film-goer, include the accidental strangulation of Jean-Baptiste’s first victim (death by suffocation isn’t that quick or that not noticeable), massive anachronisms in costumes and custom, and poor science on the subject of perfuming itself. And with the exception of costuming, these are not subjects on which I hold significant knowledge, but any thinking person in pondering how they are presented has to go “but that makes no sense!”
When Alan Rickman shows up in the second half of Perfume, it’s a disappointment. The character (the father of the victim Jean-Baptiste wants most, because she visually resembles that first girl he killed — how are looks and scent possibly related?) is underwritten and Rickman is clearly just there to do what he does so inimitably, that is talk very slowly in a very menacing way about the terrible things he’s going to do to someone. It’s as effective as ever, but it’s a waste of an acting talent.
Perfume ends as it begins at the scene of Jean-Baptiste’s execution for his crimes. And execution which, with the power of his perfume goes far differently than expected. Here Perfume had a real chance to make a statement, be uplifting or condemning or even bring in a hint of the supernatural (which is the only thing that would explain certain other facts we get in the course of the film, but I don’t think there’s supposed to be a supernatural element to the story, I think those are just mistakes). Alas though, we get a big dose of anachronistic heightened reality and our drama is transformed once again, this time into an absurdist fairytale for adults, that is not so enticing as it should be (I must also note irritably that when the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world is unleashed apparently the world is populated merely with heterosexual couples and lesbians. It’s a little quibble, but exactly the sort of little quibble that run rampant all over this film).
Sadly, it is also at this point that the voiceover, so effective in other parts of Perfume, lets us down, by implying that Jean-Baptiste has acquired a worldliness on his journeys, but there is no evidence of that in what we have just seen and it weakens those parts of the film that do succeed in catching our attention and even charming us.
Perfume is interesting and may be worth renting for those with particular interest in the story or the struggle to tell stories of this nature, but prepare to be disappointed.