Scent to Death
Since its publication in 1985, Patrick Süskind’s German novel Das Parfum has been hailed as an instant classic.
It was also declared “unfilmable” by no less than Stanley Kubrick, who liked the book. Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, and Tim Burton also considered adapting it before going off the idea. Bringing the story to celluloid has been a personal mission for Germany’s Tom Tykwer, and now at long last he has managed to put it on film in a handsome English-language version, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. What a shame it’s so laughable.
The main character is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, a handsome English newcomer made to look ugly with fake pockmarks on his face), a fishwife’s unwanted baby born in mid-18th-century Paris. A misanthropic and coldly amoral person from childhood, Grenouille mysteriously has no body odor yet turns out to be a savant when it comes to detecting and mixing scents. He becomes an apprentice to a burned-out Italian parfumier (Dustin Hoffman, far out of his element) and learns the secrets of the trade. Grenouille’s dream is to create a smell so powerful that it’ll bend people to his will and make them love him. The only odor that he finds so intoxicating is that of a young woman. So he starts killing them and turning their bodies into his perfume.
What about this novel so captured the imagination of so many great filmmakers? For starters, it’s a terrific character study of the malevolent Grenouille. Süskind puts on a virtuoso display, capturing the sense of smell in prose (the English translation I read gives a clue to this — I can only imagine what it’s like in the original German). The book’s audacious climactic sequence during a gigantic orgy powerfully details the effects of mass delusion and paranoia, especially to German readers with memories of Hitler.
The movie more or less fails to do any of these things. Whishaw never brings out the menace in his extremely withdrawn character, and the filmmakers resort to some stilted voiceover narration (read by John Hurt) to try to get inside Grenouille’s head. The movie certainly looks opulent and beautiful thanks to cinematographer Frank Griebe (the clear edges and bright colors bring medieval illuminated manuscripts to mind), but cinema proves to be an even poorer medium than prose for conjuring up smell. As for that orgy, while it’s somehow convincing on the page, here it looks like the end of some third-rate 1980s Hollywood horny-teen flick. Tempting as it is to appreciate the pure madness of the moment — Werner Herzog himself probably never went this crazy on film — the scene remains unpersuasive and thus unintentionally funny.
We may have to start considering Tykwer’s international hit Run Lola Run as a one-off. The delightful sense of humor that made that 1999 movie such a kick deserted him in his spacey The Princess and the Warrior, his English-language political thriller Heaven, and now here. Much like M. Night Shyamalan and Lars von Trier, he has become a tremendously talented director putting his skills at the service of unworkable ideas. In his hands, Perfume becomes overpowering and vulgar once its intriguing initial impression fades.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Starring Ben Whishaw and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Tom Tykwer. Written by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, and Tom Tykwer, based on Patrick Süskind’s novel. Rated R.