Tom Tykwer is not a favorite — I liked Run Lola Run well enough on a single viewing, but watching it a second time was an exercise in diminishing returns, and I had little use for The Princess and the Warrior. So I had written this project off long ago, despite the fact that the novel by Patrick Süskind is among my very favorite books. What a surprise, then, in the opening reel. The Dogville-inspired flashbacks characterized by the (re)use of John Hurt as a sardonic narrator were a little disorienting, but what was up on screen was a rich and putrid vision of 18th Century France, resplendent in colorful detail and redolent with the kind of grunge you’d expect to see slathered across the set dressing in a Monty Python movie. You could almost — yes — smell it.
Despite the novel’s international-best-seller pedigree and the presence of thespians Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman in supporting roles, Tykwer does not attack this like a prestige picture. The first reel includes one of the more gag-worthy birth scenes ever, the business with Hoffman as a master Parisian perfumer isn’t nearly as precious as I had expected, and the gaunt Ben Whishaw is terrific in the lead role of Grenouille.
Tykwer spends his time screwing around with audience loyalty, doing his best to make Grenouille an appealing character even as the nude corpses of pale, beautiful women pile up at an alarming frequency. At times it feels almost like a highbrow exploitation movie, and the best scenes are the ones that go furthest over the top. In one, Grenouille is in full-on, mad-scientist, never-mind-the-body-floating-in-that-vat mode; in another, he presides over a grand, town-square orgy in his bony rock-star resplendence (Whishaw actually played Keith Richards in the 2005 Brian Jones biopic Stoned, which I’ve not seen, and the military jacket he’s wearing in this climactic scene made him remind me of Pete Doherty). If it didn’t flag so badly in its final third, as Grenouille stalks a gorgeous teenager (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and terrorized townspeople chew up much screen time by responding to a spate of serial murders in dopey, perfunctory fashion, I might love it. B+