Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
The most daunting task facing director Tom Twyker (Run, Lola, Run, Heaven) when adapting Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume was how to stimulate the olfactory senses onscreen in the scintillating way the author managed on the page. Twyker attempts to give a cinema audience a nasal orgasm through the use of a voiceover that, by and large, quotes directly from the book; the trouble with doing so is that it serves to remind us how wonderful the source material is. But, the German filmmaker is not to be outdone and, as is his want (check out his magical realist effort Deadly Maria), he brings his own visual bag of tricks, full of cinematic references, to the party.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (upcoming Brit Ben Whishaw) is being led to the gallows in 1776. The crowds are baying for his blood; the streets of Paris are even more putrid than the London equivalent depicted by Roman Polanski in Oliver Twist. The picture then flashes back 22 years to the birth of Grenouille in a stinking market.
Life changes for Grenouille when he catches the scent of a young woman selling plums (Karoleine Herfurth) and, almost accidentally, strangles her. The powerful sequence ends with our anti-hero sniffing the body. He spends the rest of his days trying to capture this smell and goes to work for a one-time acclaimed perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) where he starts making perfume in the way Tyler Durden makes soap.
Wishaw is excellent in the central role, which demands a murderous ambivalence akin to that of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What works well on the page, however, does not always necessarily work onscreen, and in faithfully following Suskind’s text, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger’s screenplay starts to plod when Grenouille serial killer antics are in full swing.
Fortunately Twyker pulls things back for the final scene, the film’s point of departure, which is a fantastical homage to both Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.