For the most of its running time, the picaresque thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a ripping yarn, and sometimes good storytelling is enough. But by the time the mad finale rolls around, the viewer will feel had, for Perfume grasps for significance where there is none to be found. The story's pleasing scent wears off, leaving a curious odor behind.
Adapted by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) from Patrick Susskind's hugely successful—and legendarily unfilmable—German novel Perfume, the helpfully subtitled movie is as much about psychopathic violence as it is about the science and romance of scent. Newcomer Ben Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a freak of nature born without a scent but blessed with an extraordinary sensitivity for "the fleeting realm of scent" (John Hurt provides the velvety narration).
Once encountering the sublimely beautiful scent of a woman, the idiot savant loses it when he kills the girl. Thus, he determines he must learn to preserve scent, a quest that requires education (mutual tutelage with a washed-up perfumer played by Dustin Hoffman), experimentation (more murders to capture required essences), and escapism—both literal and figurative—as he stays a step ahead of the law.
The story's demands rob Whishaw's anti-hero of qualities we take for granted in a protagonist: charisma, or even personality. Hoffman's episode benefits enormously from his comic verve, and Alan Rickman shows up later with injections of shrewdness and fierce animal protectiveness for his daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood as Whishaw's ultimate prize). This climactic chapter lends Grenouille a vampiric quality, spiriting through a window in the night to swoop down to his feminine object's neck.
Tykwer's style is showy, but engaging and supremely confident. There's a winning grandiosity to Perfume in its period detail and its epic sweep of locations and extras. But just as Grenouille is defined by his moral vacuity (in itself an uphill battle for an audience), the film proves to be a series of empty gestures. Is it a perverse allegory of misunderstood artistry? An amoral endorsement of hedonistic pursuits? A plea for love instead of selfish physical and emotional violence? Perhaps none of these things, and perhaps all: Tykwer fails to give body to these thematic whiffs.
[For Groucho's interview with Tom Tykwer, click here.]