Paris, 1766. Murderer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is led from his cell to face an angry mob, who howl with smug glee as his gruesome death sentence is read aloud. The film-length flashback that follows begins with a tracking shot into Grenouille's nostril, signaling that this is a story about scent; stenches, perfumes, body odor, the sweet fragrance of flowers and more. The impossibility of evoking aroma in an audiovisual medium fueled the novel's reputation as unfilmable, and unfortunately, it's a problem Tykwer never cracks.
Paris, 1744. A pregnant fishmonger (Birgit Minichmayr) at the open air market that is the odiferous fulcrum of world alive with foul smells — or so says the narrator (John Hurt) who intrudes throughout the story to clarify, reiterate and generally interfere with the story — feels labor pangs and scrambles beneath her counter to give birth. She abandons the infant, whom she believes stillborn, but his lusty wails condemn his mother to the gallows and him to a stygian orphanage. Young Grenouille grows up in thrall to his exquisitely sensitive sense of smell, equally enchanted by the sweet tang of apples and the stink of rotting rat guts — to him, every scent is a mystery, a world to explore and remember. After a hellish apprenticeship at a malodorous tannery, Grenouille discovers the twin agents of his destiny: Perfume and murder. Grenouille accidentally kills a fresh young plum seller (Karoline Herfurth) and, as her corpse cools, conceives the idea of separating this wondrous scent from the all-too-corruptible flesh. And how better achieve this goal than by mastering the art of the parfumier? Grenouille apprentices himself to has-been perfume maker Giuseppe Baldini (a dreadfully miscast Dustin Hoffman), and when he's learned all Baldini can teach moves on to Grasse, a town steeped in the mysteries of enfleurage, which coaxes the essence of flowers into a layer of preservative grease. And then Grenouille embarks on his life's work: capturing the essence of 13 virgins, from which he hopes to mix a perfume so sublime that it will erase all the ugliness of the world. The film's second half is dominated by Grenouille's cat-and-mouse game with the protective father (Alan Rickman) of an unspoiled beauty (Rachel Hurd-Wood) destined to be the final ingredient in his scent-of-a-woman cocktail.
Tykwer composes some haunting images and newcomer Whishaw does his best to make something convincing of Grenouille, who's more a device than a character. But the film, though admirably ambitious, is resolutely earthbound, mired in ick and slime and never more wooden than in the delirious climax that unfolds when Grenouille finally unleashes his transcendent perfume on a filthy, corrupt, morally and physically compromised world. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Patrick Susskind's 1985 philosophical bogey tale is lavish but lifeless, a grim fairy tale without a hint of dark magic.