Rumor has it that Stanley Kubrick considered adapting Patrick Süskind's novel Das Perfum, but ultimately considered it unfilmable. Only a lunatic would rush in where an old master like Kubrick feared to tread. Accordingly, Tom Tykwer foolhardy adaptation of Süskind's novel is crazy with ambition, crazy with audacity, and more often than not, just plain crazy. Tykwer's adaptation falls somewhere between lurid pulp and arty surrealism in its hyperventilating tale of a scentless apprentice whose obsession with capturing the essence of femininity in olfactory form leads to mass murder.
Ben Whishaw stars as an alternately blessed and cursed young man born into sub-Dickensian poverty on the rat-infested streets of 18th-century Paris. Born without a scent of his own, Whishaw possesses a preternaturally refined sense of smell that catches the attention of struggling perfume merchant Dustin Hoffman, who puts him to work crafting exhilarating new fragrances. Whishaw soon grows bored and gets fixated on reproducing and bottling the scent of the female form. A weirdly chaste serial-killing spree ensues as Whishaw murders one lovely young woman after another to feed his mad obsession.
Perfume's utterly singular protagonist is less a plausible human being than a precious literary conceit. As played by Whishaw, he simultaneously represents the aesthete as hero, anti-hero, messiah, anti-Christ, and space alien all wrapped up in one enigmatic, inexpressive, monosyllabic package. Tykwer works himself into a froth trying to find a visual analogue to the dizzying world of smells and sensations his curious anti-hero inhabits, with generally unsatisfying results. Once Whishaw's reign of scent-based terror begin, Perfume grinds to a halt, though Alan Rickman deserves some kind of award for lending gravity to his character's fear that an olfactory madman will try to steal the scent/life of his gorgeous daughter. However, the film nearly redeems itself with a stunning fever dream of a climax in which Tykwer finally captures images commensurate with his startling ambition. Perfume is ultimately an unmistakable failure, but there's a strange majesty to its epic overreaching. It can be faulted for many things, but not for lacking the courage of its convictions.