'Perfume': Smell bound 

Though it merits a place in the annals as an ode to the proboscis, "Perfume," writer-director Tom Tykwer’s striving adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s novel, delivers, with all its sensorial splendidness, only half of what it takes to spellbind us. Emotional impact and driving purpose are missing from this psycho-fantasy.

By virtue of both Tykwer’s way with a fairy tale (credits include "Run Lola Run" and "The Princess and the Warrior") and the book it is faithfully based on, the film, subtitled "The Story of a Murderer," is surely unordinary.

Set in 18th-century France, the story centers on an ignobly born (amid rats and fish guts) misfit, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), who has an ultra-keen sense of smell and an obsession with odor. Following a brutal childhood, Grenouille finds his calling when apprenticing for the veteran Parisian perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman).

But while Baldini teaches Grenouille valuable perfume-making techniques, he can’t give the budding psychopath what he demands: a means of preserving the scent of the soul.

Grenouille achieves that feat by killing and distilling virgins. A redheaded Grasse girl (Rachel Hurd-Wood) with a protective father (Alan Rickman) is the ultimate catch he seeks for his love potions.

Tykwer, an impressive stylist, has a bent for spectacle and paints his surfaces strikingly, whether offering up grotesqueness befitting the serial-killer ingredient or luxuriant tones in flowery Provence. And while the scenes of whiffing schnozzes are silly, Tykwer’s depiction of the olfactory experience, via images of everything from petals to offal, is unique and vibrant.

What isn’t on Tykwer’s palette, however, is profundity.

Throughout this period thriller and supernatural fable, which contains an unstirring woman-in-danger segment and a ludicrous climax, there’s little sense of enlightenment or wow.

Echoing Tykwer fare from "Winter Sleepers" to the Kieslowski-scripted "Heaven," the movie deals with human and spiritual connection. But Tykwer doesn’t, in his adaptation (cowritten by Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger) of Suskind’s book, convey a core idea or vision that is sufficiently potent to sustain viewer involvement over the 148-minute long haul.

The film also lacks a compelling character or performance.

As played by relative newcomer Whishaw, Grenouille is too blank to be sympathetic, hateful or gripping. Hoffman, whose casting seems intended to give this international shebang a Hollywood component, is colorful but unconvincing in a cartoonish role that calls for a ham, Gerard Depardieu-style, of the European kind. Hurd-Wood’s and Rickman’s characters are one-note.

Perfume **½

Starring Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood

Written by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer; based on the book by Patrick Suskind

Directed by Tom Tykwer

Rated R

Running time 2 hours, 28 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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