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Perfume Leaves a Strangely Wonderful Scent
January 17, 2007
by Paul Donovan

Click For Full Size It doesnít take a self-important critic to recognize that cinema is an inherently visual medium that is enhanced by auditory cues. Stories are told through pictures and sounds; other senses arenít engaged much, though there have been a few experiments in movie history to engage those other senses: John Waters incorporated ďsmell-o-visionĒ into the film Polyester, for which movie tickets came with scratch and sniff cards to be used at specific moments in the movie. Additionally, a B-horror picture from 1959, The Tingler, used a technique called Percepto in which theatre seats were wired with a buzzer that went off when characters screamed. As you can see, however, those gimmicks never caught on.

Last year a remarkable film called Perfume debuted in Germany. It has slowly become a sensation, finally being released widely in America this month. While it doesnít use any gimmicks like the ones Iíve mentioned, it manages to be one of the must sensuous films Iíve ever seen.

Perfume is an odd story based on a novel of the same name about a young man (played by the beautiful Ben Whishaw) who was born with no body odor, no smell about him at all. Yet he also was born with an extraordinary sense of smell and becomes a well-respected Perfumer, learning how to create wonderful colognes simply by combining esoteric smells.

His quest to make the perfect scent leads him to perform bizarre experiments during his attempts to capture the most extraordinary smell of all, the smell of beauty. His experiments soon lead to the deaths of beautiful women, which doesnít sit well with the superstitious local populace.

Perfume will not be well-received by all audiences. One critic who saw the same screening as me said it was one of the worst films of the year, referring to it as something like a ďpompous, intellectual slasher filmĒ. He found no redeeming values in it at all. And I can understand how some people will have that reaction.

With all due respect to that critic, though, it is obvious that he didnít understand Perfume at all.

Perfume is a sublime tragedy, an existential fable about living with no record of oneself. Itís about a man who, being unable to relate to other people, is determined to make a mark on the world by constructing something that he himself cannot fully experience. By ensuring that a large number of people have one of the most remarkable experiences of their lives, he pays the price of forever separating himself from those heís trying to affect.

Cinematographically, the film revels in the sensuous nature of lifeís adventures; it is almost possible to feel and smell the subjects on the screen. Itís a magical use of camera work that should surely be nominated for an Academy Award. The movie will also likely be remembered for its triumphantly sexual climax (no pun intended); I donít want to give anything away, but surely it set some record.

While I admit that the film wonít appeal to all audiences, people who feel that itís just about murder or sex have already given themselves away as not comprehending it. That is why they will be unable to understand the final scene of the film. Perfume is an exquisitely painful exploration of the all-consuming nature of humanityís search for beauty and connection in a world that destroys both. It is surely one of the best films of the year.
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