If you’ve ever asked yourself just how creepy and off-putting Ben Whishaw is capable of being (and, let’s face it, we all have), this is the movie that answers that question. It is rated R for “aberrant behavior,” and the MPAA, she is not joking.

It’s 18th century Paris. Everyone is dirty, wears brown all the time, and smells bad. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Mr. Whishaw, and, no, I am not joking about his character’s name, and, yes, I wish that I was) is born in the worst-smelling part of Paris–the fish market–and eventually as an adolescent orphan works in a tannery. All the other kids hate him because is a terrifying creep who constantly sniffs things because they feel threatened by his god-given unique talent for olfactory sense. Right.

So he smells a girl selling yellow plums, becomes obsessed, startles her badly, inadvertently kills her, then strips her and sniffs her dead body. And then it gets weird. Desperate to capture (her? the perfect? any?) scent, he manages to apprentice himself to Dustin Hoffman as a ridiculously terrible Italian perfumer, where he learns the basics. He then embarks on a killing swath through the south of France so that he can recapture a legendary Egyptian perfume by using eau de dead prostitute. (Thus the subtitle: The Story of a Murderer.)

Then it goes off the rails completely and I can’t really tell you how without spoiling it entirely, and I don’t really want to do that even though I can’t recommend that you watch this movie.

Why? Because it’s just desperately unpleasant. It’s true that the alternatively squalid and opulent portrayal of 1700s France is well done, and that the visuals are often stunning. Alan Rickman bears up pretty well as an actor under the ambient absurdity, but on the other hand both Mr. Whishaw and Mr. Hoffman are emphatically weak. As the film wears on, you find yourself wanting to continue watching, not because you actually have any sympathy with anyone, but because you’re honestly curious how it’ll get itself out of its own coils. I did not find that it did so satisfactorily; you might.

Stray observations:

  • Please wear a shirt, Ben Whishaw. Your air of stylish malnutrition may be appropriate for the part, but people wear shirts. Even crazy people and French people and poor people.
  • As the film barrelled/staggered/wafted towards its close, I seriously considered posting just the word: “What.”

Director: Tom Tykwer
Rating: R. And not the fun kind.
Length: 147 min., which was too long.
Score: 2/5. Stylish, but neither fun to watch nor enlightening.

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