As a long time fan of the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind, I approached the movie version with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. All too often novels adapted into movies are bastardized, mangled and corrupted by the conglomerates that make big budget feature films – bowing to the demands of investors, financiers and “expert opinion” with regard to what will sell in the market place.
It is little wonder then that Suskind, the author, turned down offer after offer from highly regarded directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese, probably out of fear that his own novel would suffer the same fate as so many before it. However, in the famous words of the original pin ball machine, eventually “he chose wisely”. German director Tom Twyker of Run Lola Run fame received the nod after much campaigning by Suskind’s old friend and accomplished screenwriter Bernd Eichinger who longed to bring the novel to life on the big screen.
Twyker manages to tell the tale that many believed to be un-filmable through the use of the humourous voice over by John Hurt and a rollicking and sumptuous visual style that evokes that most under rated sense – smell. More particularly the extraordinary gift of smell that has been bestowed on Jean Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw). From the initial scenes of the festering and filthy eighteenth century fish markets of Paris where Grenouille is born and abandoned by his mother, through to the tannery where he scrapes the flesh from dead animals and beyond, we are served up offacoltory explorations. Close ups of Grenouilles nostrils and probing camera shots into fish heads, maggot infested carcasses and the seething, grimy streets draw us into the lonely and stench filled world that Grenouille inhabits.
Wishaw, a relative new comer to the screen is an unusual mix of quietly captivating and strangely unnerving. He has a weird sexless, almost inhuman quality about him, and thus when he accidentally causes the death of a ravishing red head peasant in the back streets of that market, his demeanor does not change drastically but rather intensifies somewhat. Once he gets a gets a whiff of for the most perfect smell of all – the scent of a woman - he is compelled into a calculated killing spree in an attempt to capture this most divine of aromas and create the perfect perfume. The character does however lose his way slightly in the last throws of the film as we wait in vain for some further character development to ensue.
So no, the film is not perfect. Grenouille’s inexplicable English accent is initially off putting. Dustin Hoffman as the Italian perfumer, while pivotal to the story and adding a fair smattering of humour, is a slightly peculiar addition to the cast and his accent resonates in that strange way that Americans faking European accents so often do. And yes, the crazy orgiastic revelry of the final scene is briefly amusing but really, actually somewhat grotesque and a little bit trashy.
But Perfume is undoubtedly a sumptuous cinematic romp, complete with gloriously detailed costumes, swooping cinematography and exquisite settings. From the grimy and stench ridden alley ways of Paris to the picturesque town of Grasse in Provence, where Grenouille, surrounded by fields of fresh flowers, the cobbled streets of an ancient walled city and the heaving cleavages of virginal maidens pursues his deranged perfumier passion.
While no visual rendition could quite capture all the subtleties or nuances of a novel as layered and as beautifully crafted as Suskind’s Perfume or indeed of that most unexplored sense - smell, Twyker has made an exciting, original and visually spectacular film telling a fabulous portion of the tale.
Reviewed by Philippa Rennie