First published in 1985, Patrick Suskind's novel Das Parfum became a literary sensation. Translated into several languages (in English as Perfume), it also became an international best seller. As might be expected, this naturally attracted the attention of the film industry. Over the years such directors as Martin Scorsese, Milos Foreman, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton himself considered adapting the novel. Reportedly Kubrick himself claimed he book was "unfilmable." In the end, however, it was Tom Tykwer (German like author Paul Suskind and director of Run, Lola, Run) who would bring the novel to film as Perfume: the Story of a Murderer.
Set in 18th century France, Perfume: the Story of a Murderer is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a young man born with no scent of his own, but nonetheless possessing a phenomenal sense of smell. His superhuman olfactory sense makes him the perfect perfumer. Unfortunately, it also leads to obsession, as Jean-Baptiste seeks to create the ultimate perfume. Perfume: the Story of a Murderer is about much more about perfume or even 19th century. Director Tom Tykwer and screenwriters Bernd Eichinger and Andrew Birkin have successfully captured the novel's complexities and brought them to the big screen. Like the book, Perfume: the Story of a Murderer has many layers, exploring not only 18th century France and the perfume industry of that milieu, but exploring the nature of identity, obsession, morality, and society. Even if it wasn't set in 18th century France, Perfume: the Story of a Murderer would not be a run of the mill serial killer movie.
To this end Tom Tykwer may well have been the perfect director to bring the novel to the big screen. He does what might seem highly unlikely--he captures scent on film. Through the use of close ups, colour, and some rather precise editing, Tykwer gives a visual experience of the various smells filling Jean-Baptiste's remarkable nose. It is a task in which a lesser director may have failed, but Tykwer succeeds admirably. The film also has an amazing look. Director Tom Tykwer, cinematographer Frank Griebe, and art director Laia Colet have produced a visually stunning film. From the ugliness of the Paris fish market to the beauty of the mansion of Richis (Alan Rickman), Perfume: the Story of a Murderer not only captures the look and feel of 18th century France, but the mood and emotional underpinnings of the milieu as well.
If Perfume: the Story of a Murderer fails in one respect, it is that for the most part Tykwer failed in creating an emotional connection to the characters. I really did not feel much of anything for Jean-Baptiste, neither sympathy at his search for identity nor even disgust at his murders of young girls in his search for the perfect perfume. Even the murders of the young women themselves did not provoke much of an emotional response in me. Ultimately, only two characters in the entire film generate much of an emotional resonance. Dustin Hoffman, as the once great Italian perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, first evokes pity at his plight (once the talk of Paris, he is now a has been) and then joy at the resurgence of his business as he puts Jean-Baptiste's remarkable sense of smell to his own use. Even better is Alan Rickman as Antoine Richis, second consul in the city of Grasse. Rickman makes Richis sympathetic to the viewer as Jean-Baptiste undertakes his murder spree, trying to keep his head as the citizens of Grasse lose theirs while at the same time worrying about the safety of his own daughter, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood).
For other films, the failure to generate an emotional connection with most of the character might be a fatal flaw, but Perfume: the Story of a Murderer is a movie with complexities enough to overcome it. The movie swiftly captures the viewer's attention, as it unfolds the many levels of its story, and holds the viewer's attention not only with a genuinely interesting plot, but with a truly amazing atmosphere. Perfume: the Story of a Murderer may not be a perfect film, but it is certainly a good one.
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