PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
by Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ask me not when I first read Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. My copy of the book is the first US paperback edition from September 1987, so I imagine I must have read it some time in 1988. While most editions of the book have a cover which uses Antoine Watteau’s “Jupiter and Antiope,” my edition has a cover depicting the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in silhouette against a red background opening a vial of perfume.
But this isn’t about when I read a book, this is about the way the book was converted to a film. Apparently several directors had desired to bring Perfume to the big screen and Süskind was very skeptical of their intentions and abilities. Altman stated that the film couldn’t be made and Süskind wrote a film (“Rossini”) about the process, although with a fictionalized version of both himself and the book in question.
The basic story is of a man born without an aroma of his own, but with an amazingly heightened sense of smell. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille leaves a trail of death and destruction behind him, in many cases unintentionally, but when he decides to learn how to capture human scents for posterity, he becomes a murderer, and Perfume is his story.
Tykwer’s cast is mostly unknowns, punctuated by three big names. Giuseppe Baldini, the perfumer who is the first person to take an active interest in Grenouille, is played by Dustin Hoffman. Antoine Richis, the wealthy merchant who fears his daughter, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), is the target of a mass murderer, is played by Alan Rickman. Finally, the narrator is voiced by John Hurt, although the film relies a little too heavily on Hurt to explain what is happening. While all of these actors have portrayed disturbing characters, none of them old a candle to Perfume’s protagonist.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is portrayed by Ben Whishaw. As the murderer who is separated from society for reasons he cannot fully comprehend, Whishaw brings an amazing amount of creepiness to the role, which both fascinates and disturbs the viewer. The murder scenes, especially, when Grenouille is interacting with his dead (and frequently nude) victims are notable for their unsettlingness.
One of the problems facing Tykwer, and, in fact, Süskind in the original novel, is how to bring out the importance of aroma in a medium which relies on visuals or sounds. Tykwer does an excellent job, in part by focusing the camera on characters’ noses, but more importantly by filling the screen with images that have a strong aromatic sense, from the gutted fish in the opening sequence Rue aux Fers to the plums sliced by his fist victim (Karoline Herfurth).
The film (and the book) both bill themselves as “The Story of a Murderer,” and both succeed. Perfume is not a mystery, the viewer knows exactly who the murderer is as well as his motivations. The identities of most of his victims is unimportant, either to him or to the viewer, and those who are important are clear. Perfume also isn’t an attempt to see into the mind of the murderer and make him sympathetic, for Tykwer and Whishaw do not even attempt to make Grenouille into a sympathetic creature. Instead, it is an exploration of a solitude which is accepted by the loner as well as an examination of scent, perhaps a human’s least used sense.