Oh the horrible things we will do in order to smell good. Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” reveals that the natural order of the world is nasty and stinky. Its main character, as the title suggests, is a homicidal perfumer who creates the world’s most intoxicating scent by killing beautiful women, covering them in a viscous liquid, cocooning them, then placing them in a weird pickling device that distills them into “their essence.” Think about that this holiday season when you’re at the fragrance counter.
Based on the bestselling novel by Patrick Süskind and narrated by John Hurt, “Perfume” follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born into the muck of a Parisian fish market, abandoned by his prostitute mother and saved only by his remarkably talented nose: the overpowering funk of the market causes baby Jean-Baptiste to cry out, alerting a passersby to his presence and implicating his mother in child abandonment (she’s the first of many who will die as a result of an association with Jean-Baptiste). After a catalogue of the degradations offered by 18th-century poverty from the orphanage to indentured servitude to an apprenticeship for a master perfumer (played with zest by a powdery Dustin Hoffman) Jean-Baptiste sets about on his life’s work: discovering a way to preserve scent, which he believes contains a person’s soul, even at the expense of killing the owner of that aroma.
Art direction nuts will flip their lids over Tykwer and production designer Uli Hanisch’s creation of 1700s France, but their world is so meticulously designed even the filth looks pretty! that they inadvertently generate an atmosphere of realism that clashes with “Perfume”‘s second half, when Jean-Baptiste sleeps in a cave for months, and later creates an aroma with supernatural effects. The resultant fluctuations in tone might turn off viewers who aren’t familiar with Süskind’s source material.
Tykwer’s camerawork is frequently witty: through the use of clever lighting, Jean-Baptiste is introduced nose-first, and a shot of a door with two keyholes suggests a nostril’s eye view of the world. But there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the film version of “Perfume,” in its focus on a sensory experience that is wholly absent from cinema: smell. A movie could captivatingly portray a person gifted with exception vision or hearing, but smelling is quite different. Without a “Polyester” Smell-O-Vision-style gimmick, Tykwer must somehow approximate Jean-Baptiste’s olfactory prowess, which leads to a lot of close-ups of his nose, flash frames of objects (flowers, fruit, entrails, dung) and a lot of heavy breathing on the soundtrack. The result is not entirely satisfying.
After spending months sleeping in a cave (long story), Jean-Baptiste discovers that though he is acutely aware of every odor around him, he himself has none of his own and, in a way, neither does the movie, not least of all because it is incapable of having one, as all movies are. Where Süskind could call to mind a tang with flowery prose, Tykwer has to rely on visuals to suggest smells, an inherently distanced technique in spite of its often beautiful presentation. It stinks, but that’s the way it is.
The world of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is just as bleak as “Perfume”‘s and even more sumptuously adorned. Its frame is infused with equal parts beauty and death, and sometimes the two blend together in fantastic creatures that are amongst the most terrifying I’ve ever seen in a movie. The worst, the Pale Man, is an albino beast with droopy skin and eyeballs in his hands. Ick.
A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) travel to a new home with her cruel new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a member of the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia moves between two worlds: the spooky landscape of her imagination (where characters like The Pale Man lurk) and the terrifying reality of the fascists, whose brutal assassinations and tortures suggest that the horrors of the real world far outweigh anything in a child’s imagination.
Del Toro has a knack for truly original movie monsters his “Blade II” provided one of the first innovations on celluloid vampires in decades and all of the supernatural beings in “Pan’s Labyrinth” brim with visual invention. Whatever his budget was (and it couldn’t have been much) del Toro’s technique seems totally uninhibited by monetary concerns. His effects are as seamless as his imagination is boundless. He takes classic kid fears like the monster under the bed or in the closet and invests them with a palpable sense of reality.
The film, which has the feel of a live-action “Spirited Away,” does suffer from some tired story twists; I, for one, have had enough of movies with seemingly responsible child protagonists who are explicitly told not to do something they then immediately do. But “Pan’s Labyrinth” graphic creativity outweighs any of its narrative hang-ups. It’s as ornate as a child’s fantasy and as dark as a nightmare.