Home > Reviews > PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER – Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER – Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek

December 29, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Das Parfum: Die Geschichte Eines Mörders, by Patrick Süskind, is the most successful and popular post-war novel published in Germany. Since its release in 1985 it has sold over 15 million copies worldwide, and has been an inspiration for a myriad of people in a number of creative arts. Set in 18th Century France, the story follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man born with no personal odour, a complete lack of emotion or compassion, but possessing an incomparably keen sense of smell. After charming his way into becoming an apprentice to a perfumer, Grenouille embarks on his life’s work: the creation of a perfect scent that, he believes, will make him fully human. However, in order to achieve his obsessive aim, Grenouille begins to seduce and murder virginal young women in order to “steal” their smell. This unusual, evocative, somewhat disturbing tale has been brought to the screen as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by popular German director Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame), and stars Benjamin Whishaw as Grenouille, Dustin Hoffman as perfumer Baldini, Rachel Hurd Wood as the beautiful Laura (the ultimate subject of Grenouille’s twisted affections), and Alan Rickman as Laura’s father, Richis.

If you had asked me to list the composers least likely to write a beautiful, darkly romantic, theme-led orchestral score for a period film, chances are that Tykwer, fellow German composer Reinhold Heil and his Australian counterpart Johnny Klimek would have been pretty high on that list. Their work together to date has included all of Tykwer’s previous films, including the aforementioned Run Lola Run, and Heil and Klimek alone have also worked on the Robin Williams vehicle One Hour Photo, the acclaimed TV movie Iron Jawed Angels, and the horror sequel Land of the Dead. You may remember a quote from my Land of the Dead review, where I stated that their music was “like some kind of sub-industrial nightmare threatening to rip out my cochlea from the inside”. You can probably imagine my surprise, therefore, when I first listened to Perfume, and was immediately entranced by its haunting atmosphere and beautifully moody orchestral themes.

Such was the prestige of Perfume in Germany that Tykwer managed to convince no less a figure than Sir Simon Rattle to conduct his film’s score. Rattle is a world-renowned and highly respected classical conductor, currently in residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and had only dabbled in film music once before, when he was in charge of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and agreed to wave his baton over Patrick Doyle’s 1989 debut score, Henry V. The touch of class that Rattle brings to their work is unmistakable, and his very presence, and that of the world class orchestra he conducts, raises their work to a level I honestly thought they were incapable of reaching.

The main theme, as heard in the opening “Prologue/The Highest Point” is a disquieting choral lullaby which can’t quite decide which side of the fence it wants to come down on: it is simultaneously warmly attractive and icily cold, perfectly capturing the dichotomy of Grenouille, a man capable of creating untouchable olfactory beauty while committing unspeakable horror. The theme emerges out into a lush, sweeping statement for the massed string section in the gorgeous “Streets of Paris”, but is never allowed to become overly romantic – instead it is almost subliminally pulled back into the realms of slight unease by little percussion rumbles and grating electronic squeaks which play under the rapturous melody. This simple technique, which is something Ennio Morricone does quite regularly, never allows the listener to be truly comfortable with Grenouille’s theme, and continually hints at the darker side of his nature. The angelic unaccompanied choral performance of the theme in “The Crowd Embrace” reaches almost heavenly heights.

Choral work and solo voices play a quite important part in the score. The State Choir of Latvia, under the direction of Kristian Järvi, lends their cut-glass tones to a number of cues, notably those where the main theme is present. Israeli soprano Chen Reiss has a distant, beckoning, come-hither call in “The Girl With the Plums”, which opens with some more lovely intimate orchestral writing, before descending into thick, menacing murder music as Grenouille claims his first victim. American soprano Melanie Mitrano gives voice to the nervous, slightly disturbing “Grenouille’s Childhood”, as well as the rapturous, almost orgasmic finale of “The Perfume”, which has an overwhelming intensity Elliot Goldenthal would have been proud to have written. Reiss provides the object of Grenouille’s obsessive desire with the appropriate sense of perfection and beauty with a crystalline Italian aria of astonishing clarity in “Meeting Laura”.

Other notable cues include a delightful waltz, “The 13th Essence”, which shows a sense of classicism hitherto un-hinted at in the trio’s work; the achingly poignant “Lost Love”, which features some beautiful layered vocal work by the Latvians; and the evocative “Moorish Scents”, which features some gorgeous orchestral colours including an exotic performance of the main theme on a solo bassoon and a swooning, hypnotic cello and harp duet.

The action cues, of which they are only a few, are also quite excellent. “Richis’s Escape” and “Perfume/Distilled” feature some powerfully strident string and percussion writing which, for some reason, made me think of Beethoven. Some of the more tumultuous material reminds me of the score Trevor Jones wrote for the Jack the Ripper movie From Hell in 2001, especially some of the churning cello and double bass parts of “The Girl With the Plums”, “Grasse in Panic”, the brooding “Laura’s Murder” (which cleverly juxtaposes a boy soprano performance of Laura’s vocal theme against increasingly frantic strings), and the aforementioned “Perfume/Distilled”, leading me to wonder whether Tykwer temp-tracked his movie with music from that other turn-of-the-century serial killer movie.

I cannot stress enough just how bowled over I was by this score. I honestly didn’t believe Tykwer, Heil and Klimek had it in them, and I am absolutely delighted to have been proved so utterly wrong. As it stands, Perfume is easily one of the best scores of 2006: a glorious amalgam of beautiful orchestral themes, sublime choral work, delicate soprano solos, unobtrusively effective electronics, which comes together to form a wicked combination of mystery, murder, horror and elegance.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Prologue/The Highest Point (1:51)
  • Streets of Paris (3:11)
  • The Girl With the Plums (5:28)
  • Grenouille’s Childhood (5:16)
  • Distilling Roses (1:52)
  • The 13th Essence (2:30)
  • Lost Love (1:45)
  • Moorish Scents (5:16)
  • Meeting Laura (4:14)
  • The Method Works! (3:33)
  • Grasse in Panic (5:33)
  • Richis’s Escape (4:31)
  • Laura’s Murder (3:06)
  • Awaiting Execution (3:07)
  • The Perfume (5:32)
  • The Crowd Embrace (3:05)
  • Perfume/Distilled (7:12)
  • Epilogue/Leaving Grasse (3:01)

Running Time: 69 minutes 46 seconds

EMI Classics 0946-3-79233-2-0 (2006)

Music composed by Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. Conducted by Simon Rattle. Performed by Berliner Philharmoniker and The State Choir of Latvia. Orchestrations by Bronwen Jones, Dana Niu and Gene Pritsker. Special vocal performances by Chen Reiss, Melanie Mitrano and Victor De Maizière. Recorded and mixed by Tobias Lehmann. Album produced by Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek.

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