Should the audience not instantly savvy that Director Tom Tykwer is reaching for Steven Spielberg battleground realism, the historical serial killer movie (adapted from Patrick Suskind's bestseller) opens with a whopping gag-inducer. A trip to the Paris fish market - the epitome of smelly, creating an economic demand for new, more pungent perfumes to smother the stench -- leads to close-ups of fish heads, guts, and even, with the microscope-cam, the writhing worms within. With Barcelona's Gothic Quarter standing in for Paris, 2.5 tons of fish and one of meat were required to create verisimilitude.
It's all so gag-inducingly authentic! But, wait! In the market, a filthy fish-wife sells her wares. Oops: a first contraction. She slips below her stall, grunts out the unwanted fetus, reaches one hand up for a filet knife, cuts the imbillicus, and abandons the infant among the fish guts to be swept into the Seine with the waste! And thus Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born!
Destined to become the greatest nose Paris has known, Jean-Baptiste will also evolve into a serial killer intent on preserving the essence of beautiful young women to create the world's greatest perfume. As the movie progresses, our young but still unshowered Jean-Baptiste follows a lithe teen fruit seller across cobblestones slippery with scum. The freckled victim-to-be has radiant red hair that glows with recent washing, and unblemished skin scoured clean as if with fresh lemons and fine sand. Jean-Baptiste -- unschooled in the delicacy of women resembling supermodels -- mistakenly suffocates her, before removing her corset to reveal ribs borne not of starvation but of bulimia. She is the supermodel of itinerant fruit venders, the 18th century Kate Moss.
And so begins, by chance, our hero's obsession. The insanely beautiful redhead perishes. Somehow, in a Paris of rotten teeth and foul smells, the jewel-eyed victim neither sweats nor menstruates, but gives off a heady aroma that Jean-Baptiste must preserve and replicate. Her death inspires the sensitive fiend's pursuit of ravishing young women of varied classes. All -- contrary to the film's logic -- freshly bathed, with lice-free long tresses.
After some false starts, Jean-Baptiste finds a viable method for his madness. He bangs his victims on the head, strips them naked, shears their hair and covers their bodies with animal fat. Then he removes the oozy layer by lovingly stroking a curved knife along their supple but limp bodies, their fashionably piquant breasts posed with still-erect nipples, like perfect roses in a snowy garden.
What remains is corpse piled upon beautiful corpse, all thin hipped, small-breasted, wasp-wasted, all wrapped in the creamiest of epidermus. Even a nun, when stripped from her habit, reveals the same purity of skin tone, wasp waist and perkily posed bosoms of the sensitive fiend's less religious victims, although she is discovered on the cold stones of a church!
Suddenly, we find ourselves not in fetid 18th century France, but turning the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. What are these bulimic small-busted beauties, all lit like angels, doing popping up all over the skanky world that the director has so painstakingly created, with his so-called "Dirt Unit" of sixty odd loyal helpers slopping the scene with buckets and hoses? Where are the rotten teeth? The rats? The writhing worms?
This is a brazen director's wet dream, not historical verisimilitude. The hypocrisy climaxes the day that Jean-Baptiste, unmasked and sentenced to death, is set to be crucified. On the scaffold, the condemned man produces a perfume vial, miraculously intact after days of torture, including being dunked head-first into a tub by his final victim's grieving father. It contains the murdered girls' essence, and is so intoxicating that those in attendance - including the upright bishop - begin to remove their clothes!
Despite the reappearance of gray and missing teeth, an otherwise appealing orgy begins, carefully choreographed with 750 extras salted with 150 or so professional performers from the Barcelona-based dance troupe "La Fura dels Baus." In this scene, earthy yet attractive women disrobe women (ooh la la), but no crones crawl on crones. Visible in the Breughelian sexual melee are rounded healthy buttocks, Grade A breasts - oh, it's historical "Hair!" - but no dangling fuzzy testicles or other unsightly male bulges. Even the bishop removes his gaudy vestments; and, lucky him, gets a comely wench to stretch across his wrinkled, hairy white chest, not an intoxicated village tailor or a burly blacksmith.
In contrast, Sofia Coppola's flamboyant, much villlified, Marie Antoinette cuts a very different swath through 18th century France. Material girl Coppola tweaks us with anachronisms and self-conscious winks: montages set to '80s pop, a pair of Converse high-tops tucked among emu-feathered mules, and sexually frustrated Marie's delighted cries of "wow!" while on a tension-releasing shopping spree. Even 18th century girls just wanted to have fun - and could lose their heads when they did. We can't re-create the past, in Coppola's astute vision, but we can re-invent it. In contrast, Perfume is more perverse, dishonest and anachronistic, by larding on the fish guts and filth, while gilding the violence with 21st century tits and cable-ready soft-core orgies rooted in 20th century male fantasy.
Click here to see the trailer — it's the German version, better to make the point without the awful, distracting narration. Extra bonus: You can't hear Dustin Hoffman's terrible accent!