The seductive, sensory prose of Patrick Suskind’s bestseller, “Perfume,” reaches the screen with loads of visual panache but only intermittent magic in producer Bernd Eichinger and helmer Tom Tykwer’s long-awaited pic version. In many respects, it’s too faithful to the 1985 novel: an almost impossible to adapt reportage-cum-reverie, written from an ironic modern viewpoint, about an 18th century Parisian orphan who turns mass murderer in search of the perfect scent, Love. Euro big-budgeter, shot in English on a reported tab of E50 million ($63.7 million), has a readymade fan base, especially in Europe, among the book’s 15 million readers but is more high-end fare in Anglo markets.
Released Sept. 14 in Germany, where it’s well on its way to hitting a hunky 3 million admissions in its first month, pic has already started its three-month rollout across most of the rest of Europe. First test in an Anglophone territory will be Blighty on Dec. 8; Stateside release is skedded for Dec. 27.
Suskind, a reclusive Munich writer, refused to sell the screen rights for many years, finally yielding to Eichinger’s repeated requests in 2001. (In the meantime, Suskind had co-written the superb ensembler “Rossini,” which Eichinger’s Constantin Film distribbed in 1997.) British writer-director Andrew Birkin worked first with Eichinger on the script, and they were then joined by Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), who finally took over the helming reins.
Tykwer seems the ideal choice, having shown a grasp for contempo magic realism and highly metaphysical material in earlier pics like Expressionistic psychothriller “Deadly Maria” (1993) and Cate Blanchett starrer “Heaven” (2002), Tykwer’s most recent feature. Problem with “Perfume” is not so much how to make the audience identify with a largely silent, olfactory-obsessed nerd who turns serial killer, but how to transmit his compulsion in the strictly audiovisual medium of film. (AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision, which dispensed odors into theaters, died a quick death in 1959-60.)
Tykwer’s early solution — paralleling Suskind’s stench-heavy opening prose — is to lay on the visual grunge of 18th century Paris. After an opening, in 1766, showing Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) being led to hear his death sentence read to a braying crowd, pic flashes back 22 years. We see his birth in a stinking fish market, his childhood in an orphanage run by the money-grabbing Mme. Gaillard (Sian Thomas) and his apprenticeship in a filthy tannery under thug-with-boils Grimal (Sam Douglas).
Parallel with this visual onslaught, an offscreen narrator (an excellent John Hurt in the English version; veteran thesp Otto Sander in German prints) preserves some of Suskind’s irony as he describes Grenouille’s growing obsession with “the fleeting world of scent.” His olfactory sense becomes so highly tuned that it nullifies all other human qualities, including love, compassion and personal communication.
More than just a killer-thriller or the tale of a man with an exceptional gift, “Perfume” is a skewed love story, of a man who suddenly discovers the “scent of woman” but can’t make the jump into real relationships.
Wandering in nighttime Paris, Grenouille catches the scent of a young woman selling plums (Karoline Herfurth). Almost accidentally, he strangles her, and then, in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, tries to preserve her bodily scent in his memory by sniffing her naked corpse.
Grenouille’s opportunity to develop his obsession comes in the form of onetime successful parfumier Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), whom he persuades to take him on as an apprentice.
When Grenouille discovers that human scent can’t be bottled, he sets out on his own to Provence, in southern France — to the town of Grasse, which specializes in enfleurage, extracting the essence of flowers. Joining a firm run by Mme. Arnulfi (German thesp Corinna Harfouch), and becoming obsessed by the virginal scent of local beauty Laura (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood), daughter of widowed merchant Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), he turns to mass murder to produce the ultimate femme-scent cocktail.
Apart from scissoring an episode set in Montpellier, script is extremely faithful to Suskind’s book — indeed, more liberties should have been taken to make the novel work on the screen. During its first hour, prior to Provence, film is entertaining on a visual level, with Uli Hanisch’s extraordinary production design and Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s lived-in costumes giving a real feel for 18th century Paris without too much exaggeration.
But with far too big a chunk of screentime given to Hoffman’s unconvincing perf as the charlatan Baldini, pic is slow moving . Despite Hurt’s toney voiceover, and all the shots of Grenouille’s twitching nose and talk of scent manufacture, there’s a limit to how well any film can convey the protag’s sensory dilemma.
Film really gets under way in the Grasse half, with the brighter, more colorful vistas, and Grenouille finally deciding to show the world he’s not a nobody. With Rickman proving a classy combatant as a father seeking to protect his only child, picture starts to grip in human terms. Only during the yarn’s final segment, which plays OK in the book but looks daft onscreen, does “Perfume” really lose its bouquet.
Major kudos go to 25-year-old Whishaw, recently seen as Keith Richards in “Stoned,” for his half-angel, half-devil perf as Grenouille, a difficult role into which the young British thesp throws himself with conviction. Among the many fine supports, Harfouch seems shortchanged in a part that seems to have suffered from cuts.
Though it may offend enthusiasts of the original, tightening throughout by some 20 minutes would improve the movie dramatically. But even in its present form, pic is still, like the novel, an extraordinarily brave, challenging piece of work. If Tykwer & Co. had cut loose a bit more, and gone for the heart rather than the intellect, “Perfume” could have been a fragrant treat indeed.