Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) is one of those films that leaves you both unsurprised it didn’t get much of a release and surprised it didn’t play in Asheville. It’s the sort of movie that would likely have found a market here, but never got the chance. But perhaps it’s even more surprising that it was made at all. The film is based on a novel that had been called “unfilmable” (Kubrick, Scorsese and Milos Forman had all wanted to try it). Whatever else the film is, it’s unusual—unusual to the degree that it seems to deliberately court controversy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that Hollywood has forgotten how to market. It tells the odd story of a young man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, Brideshead Revisited), who is born into exceptionally strange circumstances and is obsessed with scents. Specifically, he becomes obsessed with recreating a particular legendary perfume that induces such a sense of well-being and delight that it completely enslaves anyone exposed to it. The basis for the scent is born in his mind by the odor of a young woman (Karoline Herfurth, The Reader) whom he had inadvertently killed. That’s also the basis for the film’s subtitle, since the ingredients for this rare scent are as unusual as the story.
It’s a hard film to like—in no small part because the main character is virtually impossible to like—but it’s even harder to dismiss, simply because it’s never less than absolutely fascinating. Tykwer’s direction of the film is breathtaking, from the moment he records Jean-Baptiste’s peculiar birth to the brilliant transition to the fate of the infant’s mother. You know at once that this is no ordinary film—so much so that even some of the more peculiar casting choices (Dustin Hoffman as an aged Italian perfumier living in a crumbling house built on a bridge?) seem all right. It’s every inch a sumptuous looking production that’s laced with such pitch-black humor and strangeness that it seems much shorter than its 147-minute running time. It may disturb you, and possibly even disgust you, but you’ll know you’ve seen something when it’s over.