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Scent of women 18th century perfumer has the essence of murder

It's the ending of "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" that, quite literally, dropped my jaw -- and believe me the hinges on my mandibles are usually screwed in tightly. I'm going to tell you about it, but, trust me, it's no spoiler, because it's the context that makes it the finale, and I'm not going to tell you that.

What you see is a full-on orgy in the town square -- people slowly and sensually disrobing and, as Will Smith might put it, getting busy with whoever might be at hand, while the possibility of mystic transcendence hovers over all.

Imagine the town of Grenouille in 18th century France -- where all the great perfumeries are -- transformed into a combination of Woodstock and "Shortbus."

It has been a long time since a film presented us with pure licentiousness as The Path Back to Eden.

I understood in a flash why Patrick Suskind waited more than 20 years to assent to a film version of his international best seller "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." What writer wouldn't be dubious of the movies' ability to do all of the following in one film: 1. suggest visually the power of our olfactory senses; and, 2. tell a story that is, at once, terrifying, lushly operatic and funny in the most macabre way?

It has now been brought to the screen wildly and wondrously as a Gothic fairy tale by Tom Tykwer, the prodigious German director of "Run Lola Run" and "Heaven."

When we first see the 18th century serial killer, we can't see his eyes. They're gleaming pinpricks shadowed by darkness. It's only when his sentence is read out for his crimes that we're shown his entire face.

Flashback to his life story, narrated by John Hurt. He is literally born under a fishmonger's stall amid the incomparable stench of the fish market. He grows up in an orphanage, but his sense of smell is singular even before he is able to talk. Other children are unnerved.

He can smell a woman -- or an apple -- at a distance of 20 yards. He's sold as little more than occupational chattel to a tanner, but the perfuming gifts of this ragamuffin put him soon in the apprenticeship of a has-been perfumer named Baldini. He's played powdered and be-wigged by Dustin Hoffman, going over the top as cleverly as one should in such a macabre opera buffa (with murders replacing arias).

The young man is a perfuming genius, a virtuoso with scents. Baldini educates him in the fine points. Unfortunately, the young man also goes on the prowl to kill beautiful young virgins and distill their olfactory essences, which he collects.

Much killing and distilling is done amid a lot of gorgeously horrifying and aromatic atmosphere but without overdoing the brutality. He seems always to be attracted to red-haired beauties, with his final planned victim the most stunningly red-haired, blue-eyed beauty of them all, played by Rachel Hurd-Wood. Our artist/monster is played with appropriately sinister innocence by Ben Whishaw.

What's he's planning to do with all these distilled scent-essences is where the movie is going. As we watch it all, the music by Tykwer, Klimbeck and Heil (yes, a composing threesome) gushes forth with such a romantic string throb that this macabre fairy tale is operatic (if you read Suskind's essays, his references to opera are constant).

The whole thing is like a sinister and engrossing twist on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffman -- until that ending which is absurd, operatic and altogether head-rocking.

It's sensual, strange, funny, scary and not much like anything I've ever seen on screen before. I'm not at all sure I know what it's doing, but my puzzlement was immensely enjoyable and satisfying.

One could do vastlyworse.




3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Alan Rickman

DIRECTOR: Tom Tykwer

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes

RATING: R for much violence, nudity and sex

THE LOWDOWN: The greatest perfumer in 18th century France is also a serial killer who gets his scents from dead virgins.

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