Prime Screening Room – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Here in the Prime Screening Room, I highlight Amazon Prime Instant Videos that are not only free for Prime members to watch, but well worth the time spent viewing them.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (R, 4/5 stars, currently priced at $2.99 to rent and $9.99 to buy, and currently FREE for Amazon Prime members to view) is a gritty yet sumptuous costume drama that’s difficult to classify. Consider this synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:


An obsessive French perfumer with a highly developed olfactory sense and an all-consuming drive to capture the essence of love eventually resorts to murder in his unrepentant quest to find the key ingredient for his recipe in director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of author Patrick Suskind’s best-selling 1985 novel.

Born in a fetid fish market and raised in a dilapidated orphanage, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) toiled his childhood away in a rank tannery run by the thuggish Grimal (Sam Douglas). Subsequently obsessed by smell, Grenouille’s keen olfactory sense becomes so finely tuned that it eventually overpowers such human qualities as love and compassion. Though he has indeed discovered the unmistakable scent of a woman, Grenouille finds it impossible to connect with the fairer sex on any sort of meaningful level…

After persuading legendary perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to take him on as an apprentice, Grenouille travels to the town of Grasse in Southern France in order to learn the art of enfleurage at a firm run by the highly respected Mme. Arnulfi (Corinna Harfouch). It is there that Grenouille becomes dangerously drawn to the vestal aroma of the young and beautiful Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of widower merchant Antione Richis (Alan Rickman)… ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi


The quoted synopsis goes on to say Jean-Baptiste “claim[s] the lives of the numerous young girls in a tragic attempt to bottle the impossibly elusive smell of virginal womanhood,” but my interpretation was that he was attempting to bottle the essence of innocence, and first love. Those who eventually get a whiff of the distilled essence Jean-Baptiste has created are instantly enraptured, seeing the young man as an angel of perfection and purity, and falling instantly in love with him or anyone else who bears the elusive scent.

My Take

As I said, this film is difficult to classify, and that may explain why it didn’t do too well at the American box office despite having been a smash overseas.

Up to the point that Jean-Baptiste claims his first victim in Grasse, it’s like a period costume drama with moments of pitch-black humor.  From that point on, it becomes more like a crime thriller, but it’s never gory or gratuitous.

Jean-Baptiste is a murderer, but he kills as painlessly and quickly as possible, and does not violate those he kills in any other way. He simply covers their bodies in lard and leaves them wrapped in cloth long enough for the lard to absorb the girls’ own bodily oils and scents, then scrapes off and collects the lard to be further distilled. So while the crime of taking the lives of the young women is despicable, Jean-Baptiste himself remains a tragic and even somewhat sympathetic character.

Alan Rickman is very good in the role of a protective widower who fears for the life of his beautiful daughter, and Dustin Hoffman is both surprising and entirely convincing in the role of the Italian perfumer Baldini, whose reputation as the once-great perfumer of Paris has long faded by the time he crosses paths with Jean-Baptiste.

Ben Whishaw is also excellent in the starring role. He manages to infuse Jean-Baptiste with a purity of mission, naivete and childlike innocence, such that even after he’s essentially become a serial killer, it’s impossible to hate him. In that respect, this film has much in common with Sweeney Todd — even though Jean-Baptiste kills innocent young women and Sweeney Todd kills those who’ve done him wrong. As with the title character in Sweeney Todd, while you may not sympathize with the acts of murder committed by either man, you can understand, and even—to an extent—empathize with the motives that have driven them to such desperate ends.

I give this 4.5/5 stars. If you’ve enjoyed Sweeney Todd or the 1998 film adaptation of Les Miserables (the one that starred Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush), don’t miss this one.


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