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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

A Near-Great Film from a Near-Unfilmable Novel

Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is the film adaptation of German-language author Patrick Süskind’s first novel. First published in 1985, Perfume went on to sell more than 15 million copies in 45 different languages. Süskind’s central character, an amoral serial killer with a hyper-developed sense of smell searching to preserve the “perfect” scent, was fascinating and disturbing in his uniqueness. But Süskind’s description-heavy writing style and omniscient narration led some, including the late Stanley Kubrick, to consider Süskind’s novel unfilmable.

Perfume follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) from infancy through a strange adulthood in 18th-century France. Abandoned by his fish mongerer mother moments after his birth, Grenouille is sent to an orphanage. There, the other children take an instant dislike to him (one even tries to smother him). The children pick up on something adults don’t, something’s “off” about Grenouille. They’re right. Grenouille was born with an extraordinary sense of smell. He was also born odor-free, which partly explains why others react negatively when he’s around.

Grenouille learns to speak slowly, spending his days taking in new smells, whatever their source. But Grenouille’s life changes for the worse when he’s sold to Grimal (Sam Douglas), a brutal tannery owner. In Paris on business for Grimal, Grenouille wanders the streets, discovering, following, and savoring new scents. One unique scent, though, sends Grenouille into an ecstatic state. He follows the scent until he discovers the source: a beautiful, young woman with red hair (Karoline Herfurth). Grenouille’s intentions turn murderous when she discovers him nearby. With death, however, the scent evaporates.

Fate intervenes when Grenouille delivers tanned hides to an aging perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). Grenouille impresses Baldini by duplicating a popular perfume made by Baldini’s rival. Baldini purchases Grenouille’s services from Grimal, and becomes popular again. Grenouille, however, is more interested in duplicating and preserving the young woman’s scent. To learn more about perfumes and scents, Grenouille travels to Grasse, a town celebrated for its advanced extraction techniques. In Grasse, Grenouille runs into Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of the wealthiest man in Grasse, Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman).

Adapting an international bestseller, especially one respected by Patrick Süskind’s original German-language audience proved to be a difficult, perhaps insurmountable task for Tykwer and his co-screenwriters, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger. The film's problems can be traced to adapting Perfume with as much fidelity to the novel as possible. Although Süskind’s novel isn’t particularly long as far as novels go (the English-language translation comes in at 272 pages), it’s dense with description of 18th-century France, the nature of scent and smell, the intricacies of perfume making, and more. Almost as importantly, the novel covers Grenouille’s life from birth to his inevitable death. It’s a difficult task for any film adaptation to duplicate in a feature-length film, let alone an adaptation of a widely popular novel where even a minor deviance or alteration could be met with consternation by the book’s many fans.

A major hurdle in adapting Perfume was how to handle an introverted lead character that’s also an unsympathetic, obsessive sociopath. Tykwer’s adapts the novel’s offscreen narrator (John Hurt) to offer up a running commentary on events as they occur (the narrator also steps in on occasion to inform us about Grenouille’s state of mind). Tykwer also cheats moviegoers of a meaningful, satisfying ending when he decided to lift Grenouille’s fate straight from the novel. Unfortunately, the novel’s ending may have worked twenty years ago -- it may have worked (and still works) on paper -- but here it just feels like it belongs in a soft-core porn entry from the 1970s or the early 1980s.

Whatever its faults, though, Perfume confirms what moviegoers and critics already know about Tykwer: as a filmmaker, he’s adept at a variety of filmmaking techniques, all of which he puts to good use in Perfume, while rarely reminding moviegoers of those techniques. The film combines Tykwer’s directorial skills with the best production design, costumes, and cinematography that money can buy (Perfume is the most expensive film made in Germany). That means Perfume is never visually unengaging, which, in turn, helps minimize the obvious pacing problems. Either way, moviegoers will be left feeling that less fidelity to the novel and more attention to what worked cinematically would have been a better way for Tykwer to have gone.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars