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Heaven scent
A film review of PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER by Camus

There is one book (despite its appearance of being three) that has been successfully translated to the screen with a hobbit-sized minority of critical and public dissent. This book has been around long enough, is famous enough and has prompted enough swathes of visual representation that the filmmakers were on pretty solid ground attempting to adapt it and subsequently succeeding all the way to uncle Oscar™. The book was gloriously visual and features scenes that could only be rendered by some form of cinematic animation, so fantastic are their nature. Of course, you know which brick-sized volume I'm talking about.

What about adapting a book in which the principal dramatic theme is utterly invisible and whose supremely odious, odourless protagonist is your only guide in a bizarre and alien world of rotting fish, essential oils, infusions of roses and his own particular holy grail, the sublime bottled scents of virgins? I mean, who in their right artistic mind would take on a challenge like that? Even Kubrick balked...

All of us have at our disposal a multi-trillion dollar production company. In this company, money is – in this case literally – no object. In this vast, cavernous space, you can make movies of such scope, such dramatic intensity that you will be moved to rampant ecstasy or thundering oblivion if you knew of what wonders this production company was capable. But like real production companies, you need a script. For our own, we need a novel and the trickle or deluge of unfettered imagination. Each of our personal production companies shares the same anatomical name and the only drawback – and think of the wasted marketing opportunities – is that the movie is for one and one only and in most cases, it's one screening over many hours never to be exploited in ancillary markets. This is personal cinema, as personal as it gets, as intangible smoke and once the smoke is borne on the air, try burning that to DVD. Read the following sentence: "John walks down the street." Isn't it extraordinary? You can already see John, the colour of his hair, his type of shoes, his shirt colour. You own John even though you know next to nothing about him. Take a bow, your astonishing mind and take a standing ovation its extraordinary ability to see words on a page, translate them into the perfect movie for you and then have that imagination move you to rapture.

I remember my moment vividly.

I was sitting in the Chesterfield sofa'ed first floor of the Chandos pub on Charing Cross Road in the late 80s. I had turned the page from 243 to 244 of the novel in which I was engrossed and it was to be the climax of the book – the key moment. I had savoured every translated word and was oh so mildly irked that I couldn't appreciate the language in which the book had been originally written and what extra and unusual joys would have lain in store if only I understood German. As soon as the protagonist stepped down from a carriage, I was lost to this world we think we know so well. I was so thoroughly and utterly at the writer's feet, I may have been one of those people witnessing the fictional event itself. I was so far into the world author Patrick Süsskind had created, I may as well have been transported by opiates. I was in a deep well, its waters pungent but still. I was at a profound level of my imagination prompted by the words on the page, a place where things effervesce and surge out of you, things that no more can be stopped than blood from an arterial slash. But I was also the blood coursing through the novel, now a part of my own personal production company. It was like being united by imagination and if you think all this sounds horribly pretentious you're probably right. It does sound horribly pretentious. But who cares what it sounds like when it is so utterly magical? It just means I have no words (or the wrong ones) to describe it or the ones I choose are inadequate. Tears started streaming down my face like a watery march as if they'd been held in straining barracks for the few days it had taken me to consume Perfume, a novel of such richness of depravity and disgust that it was achingly beautiful.

Of course, the more cynical may suggest that there were other reasons for such an unmanly outburst in public. I may have chipped a nail. In all honesty, it was page 244. This leaves me with a dilly of a pickle. My mind-movie was made, the experience savoured, remembered, re-conjured by several re-reads and the experience passed on to many others, or rather the 'script' so they could create their own unique mind-movie of the book. I first finished Perfume almost 20 years ago. 20 years. And now, there is an honest to god real life movie out there... It's almost sad and the words of Orson Welles spring to mind when he was asked whether a filmmaker should respect a novel he/she's translating to the screen. Welles, in typical candour, replied "Absolutely not..." and I have a mind that's coming around to agree with that.

You have got to, as a first imperative, bring something new to the screen. Faithful adaptations to well known books are ponderous in the main to those who have created those images in our own minds already with much better cerebral resources. As I mentioned, Lord of the Rings is so huge in scope and such a visual feast, it was always going to look sumptuous and satisfy if the film-maker was competent. Well, with Perfume are there elements you can 'play' with?: The cess-city that was 18th century Paris, the abject and heart-stopping squalor, the precision of the protagonist's work, the murders and grisly aftermaths? But then the purists would demand their ten grams of scented flesh. OK, so how would you make a movie about a man who kills virgins, bottles their essences and then... something extraordinary happens which I can't really talk about.

In these circumstances I think Tom Tykwer has made close to a gnat's hair of the best film of Perfume that could possibly be made. He's slavishly faithful, sometimes over-literally so. He got the length of Grenouille's wilderness beard wrong by about two feet and there were no knives in the very final scene but apart from those deliberate practical oversights his faithfulness is almost absolute. The visual tricks of which he is very well aware as part of his cinematic palette were either stylistically toned down or absent. I just wanted the 'scent' scenes to be a little more visually evocative but he went for huge close ups of noses and the scented subject with no discernable special effect, not even a haze around the scented subject. He employs a staccato editing style that is effective without doubt. The only time Tykwer lets his digital tools get an obvious airing is in one impossible shot that if shown twenty years ago would have made Kubrick gasp. The anti-hero protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, needs one more virgin to slay and distil her essence for the perfect perfume. He's made his mind up, he's resolute but he's failed several times to snare her. Her father knows there is something on the wind (Grenouille's nostrils flare at the mere trace of her scent on, indeed, the wind) and distraught with concern for his beloved daughter's safety, he flees with her, tricking anyone following them in a normal fashion into believing they are still in a northbound carriage. Grenouille's über-senses (as far from 'normal' as you could get) tells him otherwise and the camera follows the scented trail over Provence's undulating hillsides and right to a swooping and tracking mid shot of the girl, red hear flowing, galloping on a horse. I can imagine a lot of people took a lot of time to realise that shot. But it's really the only "Look what I can do!" shot in the whole movie.

The two things that were notable right up front that disquieted me a smidgeon were the movie's certificate and John Hurt's wonderful cigarette filtered voice. How could Perfume possibly be a 15 certificate? This meant, had to mean, that the finale had to be tamely presented (unthinkable) or superbly done, a subtle blend of suggestion and hardcore... I think Tykwer did a great job with very difficult material but if any scene in the history of movies needed the freedom of an 18 certificate, it was this one. This is the scene that Ken Russell, in his hey day, would have gone down on the Pope to direct. Now don't get me wrong. I admire and enjoy hearing John Hurt's voice. Again, more faithfulness; his narration is very close to the English translation of the novel (a nod to John E. Woods, the translator). But, as a movie director, if you've taken on Perfume, surely the challenge is to visually tell the story and not rely of the crutch of narration. I guess there are certain pieces of information an audience needs and for the film to be successful it has to make sense and appeal to a larger group than just the Perfume readers. But if you are led by a voice... wait. I just changed my mind. It's not as if the movie is 100% covered in chat. If I'd not read the book several times, I think I would have enjoyed and required Hurt's narration. Scratch that niggle. It's hard to be empathic towards those who've not read this wonderful book but that's my only, lonely nod to empathy.

The visuals, as you now must expect, are gorgeous. Paris is fetid and bewigged and crumbling away into the Seine but the wide shots are remarkable – digital one assumes. Cinema is so good at doing the historical recreation. I had no problem believing I was there – CG used expertly and appropriately. All the arts and crafts associated with big budget film-making are wonderfully rendered. There's not a frame that's not lovingly crafted. Tykwer and his cinematographer Frank Griebe, do glories with shadow and often Grenouille is just that – a shadow, a sinister human shaped black spider with moonlight flecked hair and nails dirtier than Fagin's. Alan Rickman is sturdy as the final victim's desperate father. There is an irony that Rickman (known to the world as Harry Potter's Professor Snape, much to his chagrin) is playing someone on the run from a creature with such an expert nose for potions...

But Perfume was always going to sit on the shoulders of one man – the actor cast as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. In the book, he is unremarkable, "ugly, true but not so extremely ugly that people would necessarily have taken fright of him." You cannot possibly have the weight of a vast movie on your back and cast an actor who's ugly. In this case, a movie wants to attract people to its ugliness. In this regard, the striking Ben Wishaw does a very good job re-creating the man who hates mankind, the man who craves love and when he receives it, denounces it for the pleasures of hate. But then as Pingu in Nathan Barley, he'd have the perfect passport to misanthropy albeit one from a few centuries beyond Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's time. His manner and physicality suit the odious creature (is that a compliment?) but he is far from ugly which is acceptable in a gross, broad Hollywood sort of way.

Rickman is solid as the wealthy, devoted father but the perfumer Baldini, as played by Dustin Hoffman (sporting the only American accent in the cast) is somewhat caricatured. He exists in Paris, the owner of a run down perfumers, usurped by a younger more creative mixer of exotic scents. Along comes Grenouille (a major pleasure of any creative work is witnessing the misfit outdoing the seasoned giants at any game) and before you know it, the venerable old gent is leeching off his protégé. Hoffman plays it broad and while it's never grating, his performance tends to push you out of the movie for the time he's on screen. Again, don't get me wrong. Hoffman is an enormous talent but here I would – as the director – have asked for less.

I am enormously relieved that such a Herculean effort to bring Perfume to the screen has resulted in its budget and its P & A costs (prints struck to distribute and the advertising costs) having both already been recouped in European distribution alone. This means the million it's made in the US so far on a paltry 280 screen release can only be good news.

Nice one, Tom. Next time, pick a project a little easier to realise.

Sniff, sniff...

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Germany / France / Spain 2006
147 mins
Tom Tykwer
Bernd Eichinger
Andrew Birkin
Bernd Eichinger
Tom Tykwer
from the novel by
Patrick Süskind
Frank Griebe
Alexander Berner
Reinhold Heil
Johnny Klimek
Tom Tykwer
production design
Uli Hanisch
Ben Whishaw
Dustin Hoffman
Alan Rickman
Rachel Hurd-Wood
John Hurt
review posted
13 December 2007