Published in 1985, Patrick Suskind's novel "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" was the unaccountably compelling story of a boy born into the smelliest time and place in history (Paris, 1783, naturellement) with a superhuman olfactory sense but no personal scent. The boy grows up to be the most gifted perfumer who ever lived, and a serial murderer. In part a parable about the mysteries of human affection, "Perfume" turned out to be wildly pheromonal itself. It was translated in 45 languages and sold 15 million copies worldwide. Besotted directors from Stanley Kubrick to Tim Burton flocked to it, Kurt Cobain wrote a song about it, and producer Bernd Eichinger, a friend of the novelist, tried so doggedly for so long to purchase the film rights that Suskind, who was adamant his book not be turned into a film, wrote a play about it.
Eventually, Suskind relented and Eichinger succeeded. "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" went to director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and screenwriter Andrew Birkin ("The Cement Garden"), who have faithfully adapted the plot but willfully missed the point of the story. Tykwer captures Suskind's vividly rendered 16th century gutter Paris exhilaratingly well. In the city market, the camera becomes a truffle pig, isolating odors and frantically rooting them out with its snout, vividly bringing to life the foulest, most fulsomely stinky place you've ever seen. But in rebuilding the protagonist to make him more sympathetic to movie audiences, he and Birkin underplay the very elements that gave him tragic dimension. The monster of the book, a freak of nature and nurture whose singular biological quirk makes him a pariah, becomes a handsome cipher in the film; teased for his obsession with the olfactory world but not universally despised for lacking what could be interpreted as a soul. So it goes in movie-land, but it's one thing to make an intellectual novel cinematic and another entirely to play dumb.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the name means "frog" in French, though in the film he is played by the much too handsome, not-remotely-amphibian Ben Whishaw) comes into the world under a stall at Les Halles market. Under different circumstances, his mother might have been called a fishwife, but as there is no fish-husband in the picture, and she's birthed several unwanted bastards before Jean-Baptiste and left them all to die in a soup of blood, guts and maggots, she's probably more accurately described as a fish tramp. This time, the wailing baby is discovered, his mother is sent to the gallows for attempted murder and Jean-Baptiste is sold to an orphanage, then to a tanning factory, then, when he demonstrates an olfactory ability that surpasses normal human ability by a mile, to a perfumer, who teaches him his trade. By the time Grenouille embarks on his new life as a fragrance genius, he has killed a young girl and will kill many more. But we don't have an idea of what he's really after.
Much was made of the difficulty of bringing the novel's vivid aromas to the screen. But that appears to have worked out fine. What's missing is less a sense of the protagonist's inner nose (which is very well-trammeled) as a sense of his inner life, motivation or desire. And as much as it's in many ways a visual pleasure, tonally, the movie is a mess. Whishaw plays Grenouille like a kind of noble savage rather than the amoral genius he is. Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the fading celebrity perfumer is disconcertingly kitsch and over the top, a buffoonish interlude in what is essentially a dark, mordant story about a killer who manipulates the unaware and ignorant masses into recognizing him as a messiah.
Instead, we get a confused love story of sorts, in which the aristocratic virgin Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood) becomes the ultimate object of longing. No wonder her father, played by Alan Rickman in perma-scowl, spends the movie circling like an Australian sheepdog. This is not entirely surprising, considering how much time the movie spends contemplating her loveliness. Ultimately, though, her loveliness doesn't have much to say for itself, and the story's mordant climax, stylish as it 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 a passion for virgin scents, it really doesn't say anything at all.
"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." MPAA rating: R for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and disturbing images. Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.