Review: 'Perfume'

Published in 1985, Patrick Suskind's novel "Perfume: TheStory of a Murderer" was the unaccountably compelling story of a boyborn into the smelliest time and place in history (Paris, 1783,naturally) with a superhuman olfactory sense but no personal scent.

Theboy grows up to be the most gifted perfumer who ever lived, and a serialmurderer.

In part a parable about the mysteries of human affection, "Perfume"turned out to be wildly pheromonal itself. It was translated in 45languages and sold 15 million copies worldwide. Besotted directors fromStanley Kubrick to Tim Burton flocked to it, Kurt Cobain wrote a songabout and producer Bernd Eichinger, a friend of the novelist's, tried sodoggedly for so long to purchase the film rights that Suskind, who wasadamant his book not be turned into a film, wrote a play about it.

Eventually, Suskind relented and Eichinger succeeded. "Perfume: TheStory of a Murderer" went to director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") andscreenwriter Andrew Birkin ("The Cement Garden"), who faithfully haveadapted the plot but willfully missed the point of the story. Tykwercaptures Suskind's vividly rendered 16th-century gutter Parisexhilaratingly well. In the city market, the camera becomes a trufflepig, isolating odors and frantically rooting them out with its snout,vividly bringing to life the foulest, most fulsomely stinky place you'veever seen.

But in rebuilding the protagonist to make him more sympathetic to movieaudiences, he and Birkin underplay the elements that gave him tragicdimension. The monster of the book, a freak of nature and nurture whosesingular biological quirk makes him a pariah, becomes a handsome cipher;teased for his obsession with the olfactory world but not universallydespised for lacking what could be interpreted as a soul. So it goes inmovie-land, but it's one thing to make an intellectual novel cinematicand another entirely to play dumb.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the name means "frog" in French, although inthe film he is played by the much too handsome, not-remotely-amphibianBen Whishaw) comes into the world under a stall at Les Halles market.Under different circumstances, his mother might have been called afishwife, but as there is no fish-husband in the picture, and she'sbirthed several unwanted bastards before Jean-Baptiste and left them allto die in a soup of blood, guts and maggots, she's probably moreaccurately described as a fish tramp.

This time, the wailing baby is discovered, his mother is sent to thegallows for attempted murder and Jean-Baptiste is sold to an orphanage,then to a tanning factory, then, when he demonstrates an olfactoryability that surpasses normal human ability by a mile, to a perfumer,who teaches him his trade. By the time Grenouille embarks on his lifeas a fragrance genius, he has killed a young girl and will kill manymore. But we don't have a sense of what he's really after.

Much was made of the difficulty of bringing the novel's vivid aromas tothe screen. But that appears to have worked out fine. What's missing isless a sense of the protagonist's inner nose (which is verywell-trammeled) as a sense of his inner life, motivation or desire. Andas much as it's in many ways a visual pleasure, tonally, the movie is amess. Whishaw plays Grenouille like a kind of noble savage rather thanthe amoral genius he is. Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the fadingcelebrity perfumer is disconcertingly kitsch and over the top, abuffoonish interlude in what is essentially a dark, mordant story abouta killer who manipulates the unaware and ignorant masses intorecognizing him as a messiah.

Instead, we get a confused love story of sorts, in which thearistocratic virgin Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood) becomes the ultimateobject of longing. No wonder her father, played by Alan Rickman inperma-scowl, spends the movie circling like an Australian sheepdog. Thisis not entirely surprising, considering how much time the movie spendscontemplating her loveliness. Ultimately, though, her loveliness doesn'thave much to say for itself, and the story's mordant climax, stylish asit is, doesn't resonate. The shame is that as a story about a monster,it had a lot to say about humanity. As a story about a guy with apassion for virgin scents, it really doesn't say anything at all.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World