My one overall gripe about films adapted from books has always been, and typically with very few exceptions, that the film not only fails to do justice to the printed word on which it is based but more often than not, often ravages and annihilates the integrity, overall meaning and imaginative beauty of the book itself. What a glorious surprise on experiencing what may be a late Oscar contender - PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER.
Based on the 1985 Patrick Süskind novel, "Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Moerders", director Tom Twyker not only realizes the story on film, but surpasses the incredible sensory experience of the written word, synergistically combining the elements of sight and smell resulting in a full-bodied aromatic masterpiece.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born into poverty in the rank, stench-filled air of an 18th Century Parisian fish market. Abandoned by his mother who left him for dead immediately on giving birth, it is the very fetid malodorous rank of the market and its patrons and inhabitants that stirred the newborn to life. His cries heard by a customer, Jean-Baptiste is rescued from certain death and placed into an orphanage under the guiding hand of the money-grubbing insensitive Mme. Gaillard. It isn’t long before those who know Jean-Baptiste realize there is something different about him. With his incredible olfactory abilities, he is able to nose out rotting fish or the richest perfumes with just a whiff; describing in detail the composition and element of each aroma. And Mme. Gaillard is not one to let an opportunity pass her by. With her eye on the gold, Jean-Baptiste soon finds himself as an apprentice in a tannery run by the evilly fetid looking Grimal.
Out on an errand one late Paris night, Grenouille finds himself besotted with a scent wafting from a red-headed girl selling plums. The scent of plums mingled with the essence of the young woman who sells them is intoxicating. Desperately obsessed with this aroma, ney, fragrant elixir, Jean-Baptiste follows her, approaches the woman, stops her, inhaling her very essence. In an effort to capture this elixir, he follows her to the room where she lives. In attempting to squelch her frightened screams on realizing his presence, Grenouille smothers her, and as if attempting to imprint this sent of passion forever, he sniffs her limp lifeless corpse. Life will never be the same for Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.
Hearing of his uncanny abilities, the once great parfumier Giuseppe Baldini, after much coaxing, is soon persuaded to hire the young man as his apprentice and agrees to teach him the art of perfumery. But Jean-Baptiste is not content. Accepting his own ability and gift, Jean-Baptiste is still haunted by fragrance, haunted by that elusive imprint from the red-headed girl with the plums.
Exceeding his own lofty ideals and self-grandeur over his olfactory supremacy, he becomes frustrated when Baldini emphatically tells him of the impossibility of capturing and bottling the one scent that Jean-Baptiste craves, the one aroma, the one pleasure that has eluded not only Baldini, but all parfumiers before him, as well as himself - that of Love.
Frustrated and disappointed, Jean-Baptiste leaves Paris and heads to the little town of Grasse in southern France. Known for its parfumiers who specialize in enfleurage, which is extracting the essence of flowers, Jean-Baptiste joins a company run by the talented Mme. Arnulfi. But that scent, that luscious blend of life, innocence and plum haunts him, obsesses him, and soon consumes his every fiber. Meeting Laura, the daughter of local Grasse merchant Antoine Richis, only fuels his obsession, turning Jean-Baptiste to murder in an effort to harness and unattainable.
The olfactory obsessiveness of Grenouille and its resulting horror is punctuated with the calming, intoning narration of John Hurt.
Ben Whishaw is superb as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Like a double-edged sword he walks a tightrope between good and evil, archangel or devil, with a skill and precision that belies his 25 years. With undeniable conviction, his embodiment of Grenouille is tantalizingly mesmerizing. A Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination perhaps? And as superb as Whishaw is as Grenouille, Dustin Hoffman is enthralling as legendary Baldini. A legend in his own right, Hoffman captures the sadness of a man beyond his prime, but one with so much knowledge and so much to teach, and still so wanting to be as vital and respected as in his youth. He brings a soulfulness to Baldini that is both touching and frightening, frightening because he can’t see what Grenouille truly is, touching because you see the fatherly pride and hope as he tries to pass the torch. This is without-a-doubt one of the best performances of Hoffman’s stellar career. Alan Rickman, who I will watch in anything, anytime, anywhere, gives new meaning to the term over-protective father as Antoine Richis. And as his daughter Laura, Rachel Hurd-Ward needs do nothing more than give a look, a stare or a glance to convey the innocence and essence, and strength, so coveted by Grenouille.
Incredibly faithful to the Suskind novel, we are taken to new heights of sensory stimulation by screenwriters Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger and Tom Twyker, who does double duty as director. Thanks to the offscreen narration of John Hurt, the irony and emotional integrity of the characters and the story remain intact and, in fact, become even more vivid when combined with Twyker’s direction. And dare I say it, the film is better than the book.
Interestingly, the German born Suskind refused to sell screen rights for this book until 2001, finally agreeing to sell to Eichinger after Eichinger’s company handled distribution of "Rossini" which Suskind has co-written.
Known for his compelling visuals, director Tom Twyker moves into the stratosphere with PERFUME. Breathtakingly sensory, Twyker uses visual and auditory mediums to capture and convey the olfactory. With an onslaught of artfully crafted and often visceral images, it is not difficult to find yourself actually smelling the fetid carcass of a dead animals entrails or the aromatic wafts of plumeria and gardenia, sitting in the theater. The mind is an incredible thing and with the right stimuli...well, mind over matter. Thanks to production designer Uli Hanisch and one of the most skilled cinematographers and editors in the industry today, Alexander Berner, visual and auditory senses are stimulated to the point of forcing the sense of smell into play. Berner’s lush photography and split second imagery incites untold emotion as if a tempting seductress. Toss in Pierre-Yves Gayraud's period perfect 18th Century Parisian costuming and the result is a pantheon of delight. Opening in 1766 with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille being led to his public death sentencing, the film returns 22 years earlier to regale the life of this man now facing the gallows. Fascinating, effective and even chillingly real.
Horrific, tender, emotional, visceral, psychologically enthralling, yet beautiful. With its multi-sensory bouquet of fragrance, PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER is the perfect scent to start off the new year.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille: Ben Whishaw
Giuseppe Baldini: Dustin Hoffman
Antoine Richis: Alan Rickman
Laura Richis: Rachel Hurd-Wood
Narrator: John Hurt
Directed by Tom Tykwer. Written by b Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tykwer, based on the novel "Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Moerders" by Patrick Suskind. Rated R. (145 min)