Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume revolves around the question of smell and is therefore difficult to adapt for the screen. However, Tom Tykwer managed to do exactly that – bringing the complex nature of the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, to life in a convincing way.
This is an epic, lavish production with scenes that positively heave with extras, and produced in such a way that the “period” does not detract from the story. From the stench of a Parisian fish market to the lavender laden fields of Grasse in the rural south, we actually observe 18th century France through its scents.
Grenouille’s life begins and nearly ends in the fish market. Left for dead among the entrails, his scream saves him and he restarts his life in a crowded orphanage. Through John Hurt’s fabulously dry narration, a sense of irony is woven into this tragic young life. As he grows, Grenouille’s sense of smell becomes so highly developed that it seems to extinguish all his other human qualities, including love, compassion and personal communication. Ben Winshaw’s innocent yet devilishly driven performance as Grenouille is both believable and intriguing.
Sold off aged 13 to a tanner, he works hard in treacherous conditions. One day he is taken into the town, where he experiences a new world of scents. The streets are sheer joy for Grenouille, who can only learn about the world around him through its smells. One smell captures him completely – the scent of a plum seller.
His fascination is complete and creepy. When he realises that he will never be able to smell her again, he tries in vain to keep her scent. And so begins his life’s work, the recreation of her smell.
He encounters the failing perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) who he charms by his ability to mimic a rival’s scent. Here Grenouille learns the theory behind the practice he has displayed – how to mix a perfume and how to create essential oil from flowers. When he finds that there are limits to what can be distilled to essential essence he leaves for Grasse, the Mecca of scent creation.
After an epiphany on his journey, Grenouille’s drive for the ultimate scent takes a macabre twist in Grasse and leads to his demise in a scene that opens the film. This device of opening a film with a scene that looks like the end is a tired way of building tension and suspense. And although there are brilliant comic touches in this film, neither Hoffman’s performance, nor the relationship between the two is convincing as it ought to be
The pace is often laborious and doesn’t leave quite enough space for the viewer’s imagination. Despite the film reaching thriller pitch, having seen the sentencing at the beginning serves only to slacken the pace and make the denouement more obvious.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Perfume entices the viewer into the world of a largely silent, scent-obsessed, nerd turned serial killer and makes his compulsion believable. That in itself is something of an achievement. An interesting alternative to the Hollywood blockbuster, Perfume, despite failing to hit the top notes, manages to hold its bouquet to the end.
A quietly evocative film
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