Smell me a story

Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume was a surprise bestseller in the mid-1980s: a surprise because it is so metaphysical, so darkly philosophical, so European. Set in the mid-1700s (the “age of reason”), it is historical but also phantasmagoric. The central character, a sport of nature, has supernatural or animalistic powers of smell while not having any odour of his own; he seems related to the monstrous little Oskar of The Tin Drum, and like him is descended from the half-human creatures who haunt the Gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. The German Gothic novel of that era, by the way, was called the Schauerroman — the shudder-novel — which is very appropriate to Perfume. The novel is concerned with reason and compulsion, with desire, death, power and aesthetic pleasure. As I say, very European.

Perfume being so novelistic a novel, so dependent on evocation over action, Suskin felt it would be unfilmable and refused to sell the rights for two decades. Finally, though, he was persuaded to hand them over to German scriptwriter and producer Bernd Eichinger, who had successfully co-scripted the movie of that other Euro-bestseller, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. (Perfume could have been titled The Realm of the Nose.)

And the team of Eichinger, co-scriptor Andrew Birkin and writer-director Tom Tykwer have made a very decent fist of putting Perfume (subtitled The Story of a Murderer) on screen. Given that what happens to the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is by no means selfevident, the novel’s tale is told by an omniscient narrator, which is the only way to do it. In the film we have John Hurt’s grainy voice to tell us the story, which works because it frames the film very much as a piece of self-conscious storytelling, one almost in a kind of legendary mode.

To create a counterpart to the novel’s (and the protagonist’s) obsession with smells, the film’s visual style is richly and densely textured. This wonderful mise en scène is a triumph of production design (by Uli Hanisch), art direction (by the madly named Hucky Hornberger) and costuming (Pierre-Yves Gayraud) — and Perfume is worth seeing for that alone. The slimy sights of the fish market of Paris circa 1735, where Grenouille is born, almost conjures such olfactory stimuli. If it’s not possible to make that device work entirely, or even as well as a novel can, the film’s rich, full mise en scène certainly gives it a quality missing from most films on our screens, faked, flattened and airbrushed as they are.

Grenouille is played by the young British actor Ben Whishaw, who brings an alarming blankness as well as intensity to the character. This can’t have been an easy job, but Whishaw brings it off brilliantly. That we can sympathise to some degree with his psychotic quest for the ultimate fragrance is a tribute to Whishaw’s conviction in the role. Dustin Hoffman, as Grenouille’s sometime employer, the perfumier Baldini, gives an enjoyably twitchy performance.

Where the film wobbles, for me, is in the last third or so, when the aristocratic Richis (Alan Rickman) becomes Grenouille’s chief antagonist. Richis intuits what Grenouille is up to, and advises his fellow burghers to “think like the murderer” — as though he were a present-day profiler of serial killers. That felt wildly anachronistic to me, but mostly it’s Rickman’s performance that bothers: he’s so overstated in his understatement. That permanent frown and choked whisper may be good for Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, but in Perfume they feel quite wrong.

There are some plot issues, too, on the level of detail — like how Grenouille, towards the end of the movie, manages to hang on to his vial of super-perfume while being suspended half-naked over a vat of water. But one can let such things go and take them as part of the phantasmagoria of the whole, which nonetheless convinces and compels one’s attention. Perfume is disturbing and entertaining, a movie with real and large ambitions.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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