Tom Tykwer's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a gloriously beautiful movie about a hideous subject: an 18th-century Frenchman who murders and preserves young women in an attempt to capture their scent. He is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan and would-be perfumer gifted with a nose that can smell everything — except himself. Growing up in the squalor of a miserable orphanage, young Jean-Baptiste realized his gift and made his life's goal "to possess everything the world had to offer in the way of odors." Apprenticed to the once-fashionable perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), he learns the trade and is struck by an offhand comment Baldini makes about roses. "They must go to their deaths," the perfumer says cheerfully, "with their smell intact."
Such is the intoxicating story line of Patrick Süskind's sprawling 1986 novel, written in language so vivid you can practically smell the pages. And Tykwer brings it to the screen with an artist's flair. Both the film and the novel are true originals: You watch or read breathlessly, seduced by the dark beauty of the images, never knowing what's coming next. And though some significant changes have been made for the screen adaptation (by Tykwer, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger), including the removal of a lengthy central section, the novel's gloomy lyricism remains intact. It's a strange, at times repellent tale of a misfit who discovers his life's purpose upon smelling an exquisite young woman's skin, but it's told in language that seems to float above the story's sordidness.
Likewise, Tykwer's film (beautifully shot by director of photography Frank Griebe) surrounds us with color and contrast: fields of lavender blossoms whose dusty fragrance seems to rise from the screen; the dark rainbow of infinite browns and grays that make up the streets of Paris; the glowing, pearly white of a rose held by the palest of redheads. The latter is Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the teenage daughter of a wealthy landowner (Alan Rickman, the very essence of nobility), and she's so exquisite she seems unreal: In a blue-green gown that contrasts with her russet hair, she looks like a Rossetti painting. Jean-Baptiste, by now a serial murderer, becomes obsessed with her, her father grows ever more determined to protect her, and the story races inevitably to a showdown.
Tykwer, best known for the ultramodern chase movie "Run Lola Run" would seem an unusual choice for a period film, but he infuses the sometimes stately story with vigor; though well past two and a half hours, it never feels long. A few oddly modern touches — such as Hoffman's Italian-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent — merely serve to add flavor. By the time "Perfume" finds its bizarre (and, yes, straight from the book) conclusion, you may be sorry to see it end. It's a creative and original work, shining colorful light on darkness.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com