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'Perfume': The Sense of Smell on the Big Screen

: The Story of a Murderer" has long been thought of as unfilmable. Now, German director Tom Tykwer has given it a try in a European blockbuster that's earned more than $100 million overseas. It opens today in this country.

Bob Mondello has a review.

BOB MONDELLO: Eighteenth century cities were not probably a treat for the nose. Consider open sewers and infrequent bathing just for a start. But Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in a stinking Paris fish market in 1738, has few other pleasures than aromas. He's sort of an odor savant as played by Ben Whishaw, inexpressive, isolated, very weird, but blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an ability to detect nuances on the breeze - the smell of stones, of water, of frog, not the most useful of talents, perhaps.

Until one day, walking pass the glittering shop, he detects a scent called Amor and Psyche(ph) that every perfume maker in Paris is trying to duplicate. And he tells a perfumer, played by Dustin Hoffman, that he knows what's in it.


BEN WHISHAW: (As Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) I don't know what the formula is, but I can make Amor and Psyche for you.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Giuseppe Baldini) Ah. And you think I just let you slop around my laboratory with the essential oils that are worth a fortune.


HOFFMAN: Oh, well, Jean-Baptist Grenouille. You shall have the opportunity now, this very moment to prove yourself. Should your grandiose fail you, it will also be an opportunity for you to learn the virtue of humility.

WHISHAW: How much do you want me to make?

MONDELLO: Grenouille becomes his apprentice, learning to pull aromas from flowers by boiling their petals and combining them with animal fats. When he tries to capture the scent of a cat by boiling it, though, you'll sense problems to come. The title is "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," after all. Grenouille's aim is to capture the scent of woman and of love.


WHISHAW: Hold out your arms please.

Unidentified Woman: That smells horrible.

WHISHAW: It's the animal fat. (Unintelligible)

Woman: Creating a perfume. I've come across some strange men in my time.

WHISHAW: Just relax. Just scraping off the fat.

Woman: Are you mad?

WHISHAW: I said relax.

Woman: I've had enough. Get out of here.

MONDELLO: I have to say I'm a sucker for lost causes and a movie entirely about smells certainly qualifies. Remember those scratch and sniff cards John Waters used for "Polyester" and Hollywood's playing with spraying scents in theaters in the 1950s? I think that one was called Aromarama.

But "Perfume" is a lush art house epic, not an exploitation flick, so director Tom Tykwer's methods are more elegantly cinematic. He's an amazing film stylist, as he proved in "Run Lola Run," and here he immerses you images and sounds, rich textures and slobbery slurps, smooth glass bottles clattering onto rough wood tables. It's deliberately overdone to force to use your other senses to compensate for your sense of smell.

: The Story of a Murderer," exactly. But against all odds, I did find it intoxicating.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.