Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) was born in abject poverty of France in 1738. Endowed with superior olfactory ability, he develops an obsessive pursuit of the ultimate fragrance. Director Tom Tykwer's film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, about Grenouille, gives us the impression that even if he were blind and deaf, Grenouille would have no trouble navigating the grimy streets and dark corridors of 18th century Paris just by using his nose. His selfish goal is to experience everything the world has to offer in the area of odors and scents. He has no conscience and no time to consider how his actions affect others. He trails people like a bloodhound, with his nose in the air instead of on the ground. Grenouille "listens" and "sees" with his nose. There's a lot of sniffing in Perfume but fortunately, not too many close-up nose shots.
Making a film about a silent and invisible substance is certainly a challenge, one that Tykwer handles admirably. The director does a great job of communicating to the audience the sense of smell that, of course, cannot be seen or heard. This is a vastly different film from his earlier, very original and energetic Run Lola Run. We see an authentic-looking 18th century France with a soiled and squalid appearance, and the darkness of that century certainly touched many people other than just Grenouille. We don't get a whiff of the fragrances Grenouille picks and chooses from, but we leave the theater feeling as if we got very close to it.
There is much darkness in this humorless film, and not just the darkness emanating from Grenouille's violence. The streets and buildings of Paris remind us that our well-lighted paths today are a recent addition to the history of humans. From birth, Grenouille's life is touched by darkness, the living darkness of people representing the shambles of humanity. He is born in the marketplace and left for dead, then sent to an orphanage where, again, he barely escapes death. At the age of 13 he's sold to a brutal taskmaster to work in a tannery, where the life expectancy is only five years. He beats the odds and survives.
When delivering some hides to a customer, Grenouille finds himself in the laboratory of perfumist Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). With his exceptional nose, Grenouille can pick out the individual fragrances from the multitude of glass jars in Baldini's laboratory and soon, with Baldini's reluctant permission, is rapidly mixing liquid fragrances on his quest for the ultimate scent. Baldini critiques his actions while Grenouille claims that he has the best nose in France, but it's clear here that Grenouille is teaching Baldini. As a perfumist, Baldini is way past his prime. His business is in a steep decline, and he's smart enough to realize that this young uninvited visitor could rescue his career and reputation. Once again, Grenouille is bought and sold.
However, his apprenticeship with the aging Baldini is short-lived. After giving the doomed perfumist 100 new fragrances to sustain his career, Grenouille gets permission to leave with a letter of recommendation from Baldini. Unfortunately, his passion for fragrances has nothing to do with aromatherapy. The darkness of his pathetic origins has possessed him and drives him to pursue the power that comes with creating the ultimate fragrance.
Much of this film is narrated by John Hurt, and a significant amount of the rare dialogue in the film takes place between Baldini and Grenouille, which is not particularly interesting or informative.
In spite of his destructive behavior, Grenouille is not depicted as an ogre. He isn't the kind of young man you would invite home to meet your daughter, but it's hard to detect any obvious evil in his face. He gazes into life with an inquisitive, almost innocent expression, and no one would suspect that he's so dangerous. We are told by the narrator that the human soul is located in a person's scent, and since Grenouille has no scent himself, he can step lightly over sleeping dogs to locate his well-guarded victims.
When Grenouille eventually succeeds in creating the ultimate fragrance, and releases it, the large crowd, expecting something completely different, responds somewhat like people respond to photographer Spencer Tunick, known for his large scale nudes that aren't what you would expect. Whishaw does a credible acting job in his first major role but much of his time on the screen is spent peering out of the shadows or waiting like a cat to pounce.
Perfume is interesting because of the desolate scenes of Paris in Grenouille's time, the courageous and largely successful attempt by Tykwer to tackle tough topics, and the grim unspoken reminder that there are people like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille still leaving a trail of victims behind them today.