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Films
by David J. Skal

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

THE WORD "synesthesia" signifies a confusion of the senses—a fascinating phenomenon often associated with psychedelic states in which one can taste music, for instance, or visualize smell. In the latter regard, the long-awaited film version of Patrick Süskind's 1985 bestseller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer qualifies as synesthetic cinema of an ambitious order, using every filmmaker's trick short of Smell-o-Vision or Odorama to convince an audience that it's actually smelling something onscreen, or at least identifying with a protagonist who can smell things no mortal has ever sniffed before.

Long considered unfilmable (no less a filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick is said to have thrown up his hands at the very thought of the task), ten million euros for the screen rights to Perfume seems to have been incentive enough for Süskind to come to all of his senses and allow director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) to craft an impressive, if in many ways problematic, photoplay.

Both novel and film tell the vampirish tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the surname means frog), "one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages." Born barely alive in the stinking squalor of a Paris fish market in 1738, Grenouille is possessed of a superhuman olfactory sense, while personally possessing no corporeal scent. Since nature famously discriminates against vacuums, Grenouille compensates by obsessively studying and collecting all the scents of the world, a self-taught activity that leads him, inexorably (how else, in a story like this?), to become the apprentice of a flamboyantly has-been master perfumer, under whose selfish tutelage he learns the basic techniques of scent distillation in a crumbling mansion precariously perched on a bridge over the Seine. With Grenouille's help, the perfumer regains his former glory, only to be killed when his structurally challenged house unceremoniously collapses into the river.

With sexual maturation Grenouille becomes acutely aware of female scents. He accidentally kills a young woman he has stalked, and, having had the opportunity to appreciate the intoxicating aroma of her corpse, fully realizes the meaning and purpose of his life. Grenouille rapidly becomes a serial killer with bloodhound-ish instincts rivaling those of Hannibal Lecter. He moves to the perfume center of Grasse in the south of France, and there applies the advanced techniques of scent capture to the task of distilling, alongside his day job, an ultimate, elusive fragrance stolen from the corpses of virginal women.

With each murder he compounds and intensifies the mystical scent, finally incorporating it into his very being. He becomes a monster both messianic and misanthropic. When captured by the authorities and sentenced to die, he unleashes the fragrance, which brings the men and women of Grasse to their adoring knees, followed by a public orgy unprecedented in human history. The traumatized townsfolk completely erase from consciousness Grenouille, his crimes, and most important, their own transgressions. His life's work complete, Grenouille returns to Paris, dousing himself with the last of the perfume in order to be summarily cannibalized by a mob who believe they are acting out of love.

Whew. Or, perhaps just whiff. Perfume is a manipulative knockout as a novel, especially on first exposure to the masterful English translation by John E. Woods. The narrative moves with the concentrated intensity of a fairy tale, demanding much—perhaps too much—suspension of disbelief along the way. On first reading, the story seems to be a profound allegory, but repeated visits raise the question: an allegory of what? Grenouille has been persuasively (however contradictorily) interpreted by critics as alternately representing Hitler and Christ (to be kind to Hitler and Christ, Dracula has suffered a similar critical fate). His mad experiments distinctly evoke the Frankenstein/Faust mythos. It's also a sick study of unrequited love and obsessive over-idealization, suggesting Goethe and Young Werther. Delving further into Germanic folklore, the scent-free Grenouille echoes aspects of Peter Schlemihl, the man who famously lost his shadow.

But after two or three readings, the novel's ultimate meaning is ambiguous at best. The mythic aspects of the tale are at essential odds with Süskind's prodigious historical research, which is mesmerizing. Who outside the hermetically sealed world of perfumers ever thought about how perfume was actually made? Or how fascinating the real process could be? Once Süskind pulls us into his authoritatively smelly web, we're prepared to believe almost anything. Following a strategy Bram Stoker chose in the composition of Dracula, the narrative is loaded with enough convincing historical detail to sell a fantastic premise.

No doubt about it, Grenouille is indeed a vampire, however allegorical. Blood lust is metaphorically displaced as smell-lust. Grenouille's lack of a personal scent—he apparently is some kind of a living, breathing stick of Right Guard, which gives him a certain invisiblity in an overpoweringly odorous world—parallels the vampire's traditional missing shadow or reflection. Stoker could have learned a few things from Süskind in terms of building his vampire's character—imagine the possibilities of Dracula's disgust at the human race and his shackled dependence upon it—but it is just this kind of interiorized characterization that made Perfume such a difficult film property, and probably would have hobbled Dracula's media life as well.

Perfume is reportedly the most expensive feature ever produced in Germany. Frank Griebe's cinematography is, shot-by-shot, drop-dead gorgeous, and that's not necessarily a compliment. Arguably, a grittier approach would have better evoked the unpleasant pungency of eighteenth-century France, where perfumes routinely compensated for well-documented deficits in personal hygiene. Instead of trying endlessly to conjure the look and feel of upscale cosmetics commercials, the filmmakers could have been a bit more forthcoming in documenting the unpalatable sights and smells of a time when people sometimes sewed themselves into progressively ripe finery instead of bathing, and caulked their unsightly smallpox scars with grotesquely thick white lead makeup (eliminated, of course, from the censoriously flattering oil portraits of the time). Where are the universally reeking chamber pots? The open sewers? Food rotting in the absence of refrigeration? Flies and bugs spreading contagion everywhere? What of the legendary, pervasive foulness of the Parisian charnel houses and cemeteries? And, for that matter, where are everyone's festering, stinking dental abscesses? Cheap perfumes were undoubtedly used as mouthwash in those days, not to mention their obvious utility as the chamber-pot equivalent of Ty-D-Bowl. I would have liked Perfume to have risen to a grotesque level of hyper-surrealism that escapes the film as produced. David Cronenberg, where were you?

The olfactory brain reels at the missed, sick-making cinematic opportunities (which, admittedly, would have done little at the multiplexes to promote the sale of rancid popcorn). Using visual imagery alone, Perfume's creative team does manage to convey the ambient nausea of the Paris fish market, and does admirable back flips in its other efforts to represent smell indirectly. If I am not mistaken, there is at least one nearly subliminal P.O.V. shot from inside Grenouille's infant nose, even before he's shed his umbilical cord. That certainly constitutes going the extra yard.

Throughout the novel, Grenouille is described as ugly, though no one can say exactly what aspect of his person repels. Here, Süskind may well be paying infamous homage to Stevenson's Edward Hyde, who had much the same problem. But even Süskind waffles on this matter; late in the book Grenouille is described as both lame and hunchbacked. Ben Whishaw, while not a conventional cover boy, has no such issues (the actor effectively impersonated Keith Richards in 2005's Stoned). However, the director, screenwriters, and performer have chosen to subvert the novelist's conception of Grenouille at every turn. Süskind takes us obsessively into the character's every perception, emphasizing his gnawing misanthropy and swelling megalomania. When I first read the novel, the young Peter Lorre immediately sprang to mind as an ideal if impossible casting choice. Whishaw comes across as an inarticulate savant who can flare his nostrils sensuously, but never lets us in on his deepest thoughts or intentions.

John Hurt's episodic narration, taken directly from the book, is a stilted device, though perhaps the perfect stratagem for a film already walking dangerously on stilts. If only there had been more of it. Additional narration would have done much to complement Whishaw's performance and deepen our understanding of the character.

One may forgive Dustin Hoffman, an indelibly American film icon if there ever was one, for not being entirely convincing as an eighteenth century Italian transplanted to Paris. Nonetheless, he steals the show as Guiseppe Baldini, the faded master perfumer whose fortunes are reinvigorated by Grenouille's preternatural talent. Bewigged and be-rouged when not outright bewildered by the new tricks Grenouille teaches him, Hoffman's showboating performance is carefully calibrated just at the edge of camp, never sailing over, and the whole sequence of Grenouille's apprenticeship emerges as a film-within-a-film, with its own sturdy beginning, middle, and end.

One can imagine an alternate, and, perhaps, more satisfying, version of the screenplay in which Baldini lingers around until nearly the end, increasingly aware of Grenouille's monstrous crimes and his own complicity. The viewer is drawn to Baldini because he is motivated by ordinary human foibles like pride and greed. Grenouille, in the film, is highly perplexing, even to modern audiences spoon-fed from the cradle with a myriad of mediagenic sociopaths and serial killers. The collapse of Baldini's house on the bridge is a digital coup de théâtre with the kind of dramatic finality that should have been saved for the film's true climax.

The final scenes create all manner of problems, which pile upon each other annoyingly. As Grenouille's final victim, Rachel Hurd-Wood shows more spunk than her predecessors and for a while we wonder if she will be the triumphant "last girl" à la slasher film protocol. Alas, no. As her father, Alan Rickman possesses a physiognomy so similar to Dustin Hoffman's that we can't help but wonder how he would have fared as Baldini (probably pretty well). And how, for instance, does Grenouille manage to preserve the last flacon of the ultimate perfume while being stripped, shackled, tortured, and moved from cell to cell? Süskind's fairy-tale logic fares less well on the screen than on the page.

And there are, sadly, more missteps toward the end of the film. A rapid-fire sequence in which a succession of women are snatched from the streets of Grasse is unintentionally comic, and provoked titters at the screening I attended. The scenes in which Grenouille slathers animal fat on the nude corpses of his victims to extract their smells are intended to be necrophile-sensuous, but end up just schmaltzy in the most literal, unsentimental use of the word. Director Tykwer then drops the ball badly for the orgy, staged disappointingly as a tepid, '60s-style love-in, with no sense of the townspeople's horror and denial in confronting their own frenzied animalism. In the novel, Grenouille's self-sacrificial death is depicted as a cannibal attack straight out of Suddenly, Last Summer. "…the human body is tough and not easily dismembered, even horses have great difficulty accomplishing it…[Grenouille] was divided into thirty pieces, and every animal in the pack snatched a piece for itself, and then, driven by voluptuous lust, dropped back to devour it. A half-hour later, Jean Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared utterly from the earth." The film, however, opts for tasteful, stylized choreography with no graphic violence. The townspeople cover Grenouille in a tightly controlled circle, diving in like politely synchronized swimmers from an Esther Williams musical.

Sometimes less is more, but sometimes more is better.

Like the novel, Perfume the movie impresses at first but falters upon subsequent reflection, rather like a vampire too often exposed to daylight. And yet, despite a running time approaching two and a half hours, the film never bores, riveting the viewer's attention from moment to moment in a manner synesthetically consistent with its literary source. Which, given the ignominious fates of so many other novels consigned to the dream factory, might be something for which we all should be grateful.

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