Stanley Kubrick said it couldn’t be done. And he wasn’t alone. The idea of transposing the magic of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume to the big screen raised doubts among movie buffs and Süskind fans alike. And yet, on September 14th, Tom Tykwer’s highly anticipated movie adaptation finally premiered in Germany. I happened to be in Berlin a week later, and bought a ticket to the most expensive production in German cinematic history. Despite the absence of red carpets and confetti, there was a sense of excitement at the theater entrance. The obvious question on everyone’s mind was: how will the movie compare to the book? But as the credits appeared at the end of the show, I realized that a side-by-side comparison would only do injustice to the movie.
Tykwer’s latest really does hold its own as a captivating, entertaining film. With Ben Whishaw’s remarkable performance as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and the surprisingly witty Dustin Hoffman in the role of master Baldini, Perfume has the potential to conquer a vast audience. Grenouille’s enigmatic character, paired with that peculiar physique and posture, quickly grew on me: this cold-blooded killer is the perfect anti-hero. Many have argued that Whishaw is too pretty for the part, but with his unconventional looks and well-researched mannerisms, he gives his role great credibility.
Another fine performance belongs to 16-year-old Rachel Hurd-Wood, who plays the innocent victim Laura. For the obvious lack of olfactory effects, we have to “visually smell” her through Grenouille’s nose: a sheer impossible task. Tykwer’s suggestive combination of images and music goes a long way, but the viewer will have to fill in the blanks.
The problem with this film is not the acting, nor the screenplay, nor even the absence of smell effects. If anything, it’s a lack of attention to detail. The computer-generated imagery used to replicate the Pont au Change (the location of Baldini’s perfumery) looks like cardboard; that’s okay with me, but I’m not sure it will impress the modern audience. Then there’s a grooming issue: when Grenouille steps out of his cave after a long retreat, he looks like the disguised puppet in Team America. What’s with the cheap-looking facial hair? Most discouraging, however, is the orgy scene at the end of the movie; this is where the extras come in. A square filled with nude people, crawling all over each other: they moan and groan at the camera, looking like pot heads in a seventies nudie flick. The Berlin audience starts to giggle. (Their reaction has nothing to do with bare bottoms, as Germans are fairly comfortable with nudity.) I struggle to contain my laughter, but the damage is done. It’s those little details that make the difference.
Perhaps one day we’ll get Tykwer’s Perfume in smell-o-vision. I can’t wait to experience Grenouille’s reformulation of Amor & Psyche, or the interior of Baldini’s laboratory. To capitalize on this thought, IFF’s Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz re-created twelve scents that play an important part in the novel. The uber-chic “coffret collector”, signed Thierry Mugler, is yours for 550 euro. I’ll have that, and a bag of popcorn, please.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
director: Tom Tykwer
screenplay: Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger
with Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood
duration: 147 minutes
Rated ‘R’ in the U.S.