Allow me to preface this article by saying that I find fictional serial killers to be fascinating. Disturbing and demented, yes, but fascinating all the same. That being said, the movie “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” has one of the most interesting serial killers of all time.
Based on the book of the same name, the story follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan born with a superhuman sense of smell. The film follows his quest to make the perfect perfume, which involves the murder of 13 beautiful women in order to preserve their scents.
The film actually begins with Grenouille being sentenced to execution for the murder of those women. The film starts as a flashback with occasional narration throughout by English actor John Hurt.
Grenouille is a difficult character to portray. He’s an uneducated, anti-social murderer who kills women for their scent. Even with a hellish backstory, any actor would have a tough time portraying Grenouille as sympathetic.
The young, but talented Whishaw not only manages to find the humane side of Grenouille, but also simultaneously manages to make him terrifying at times. Whishaw manages to convey many deep and complex emotions from a character that shouldn’t be even remotely likable.
The other actors are spectacular as well. Dustin Hoffman as the Italian perfume maker Giuseppe Baldini is a lot of fun and creates a nice break from all the dark tones prevalent throughout the film. Hoffman and Whishaw have great screen chemistry together as perfume master and student.
English actor Alan Rickman commands the screen every second he’s present. Rickman plays the sensible Antoine Richis, the father of Grenouille’s final victim, Laura. Richis is kind, intelligent and always trying to stay one step ahead of Grenouille when tracking him down.
The musical score is nothing short of exemplary. The film score conveys the emotions of Grenouille, so some scenes, like the death of the plum girl, are scored with stringed instruments and a soft, vocalizing choir. This leads to an ambivalent tone in many scenes, but also allows Grenouille some much-needed sympathy.
The number of extras in this film is astronomical, with over 5,200 extras being used and as many as 1,000 appear onscreen at once. The final scene alone required almost 750 extras. Each extra is also dressed in period-appropriate clothing for 18th century France, which is a testament to the costume department.
This film more than doubled its $63.7 million budget, grossing about $135 million worldwide in theaters. Sadly, this movie performed poorly in America due to an initial three-theater limited release and “getting lost in the Christmas rush” according to American film-critic Roger Ebert.
This film has one of the most engaging and sympathetic serial killers to grace the big screen. DVD copies are on the expensive side, running around $45 since they’re only produced outside the USA. However it’s available on sites like Amazon Prime for free, so I suggest you spend a quiet night watching this invigorating film about one of the most notorious fictional killers from 18th century Paris.