By Roger Ebert / January
Not only does "Perfume" seem
impossible to film, it must have been almost impossible for Patrick
Suskind to write. How do you describe the ineffable enigma of a
scent in words? The audiobook, read by Sean Barrett, is the best
audio performance I have ever heard; he snuffles and sniffles his
way to greatness and you almost believe he is inhaling bliss, or
the essence of a stone. I once almost destroyed a dinner party
by putting it on for "five minutes," after which nobody
wanted to stop listening.
Patrick Suskind's famous novel involves a twisted little foundling
whose fishwife mother casually births him while chopping off cod
heads. He falls neglected into the stinking charnel house that
was Paris 300 years ago, and is nearly thrown out with the refuse.
But Grenouille grows into a grim, taciturn survivor (Ben Whishaw),
who possesses two extraordinary qualities: he has the most acute
sense of smell in the world, and has absolutely no scent of his
This last attribute is ascribed
by legend to the spawn of the devil, but the movie "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" makes
no mention of this possibility, wisely limiting itself to vile
if unnamed evil. Grenouille grows up as a tanner, voluptuously
inhaling the world's smells, and eventually talks himself into
an apprenticeship with Baldini (Dustin
Hoffman), a master perfumer, now past his prime, whose shop
is on an overcrowded medieval bridge on the Seine.
Mention of the bridge evokes the genius with which director Tom
Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") evokes a medieval world
of gross vices, all-pervading stinks and crude appetites. In
this world, perfume is like the passage of an angel -- some people
think, literally. Grenouille effortlessly invents perfect perfumes,
but his ambition runs deeper; he wants to distill the essence
of copper, stone and beauty itself. In pursuit of this last ideal
he becomes a gruesome murderer.
Baldini tells him the world center of the perfume art is in Grasse,
in Southern France, and so he walks there. I was there once myself,
during the Cannes festival, and at Sandra Schulberg's villa met les
nez de Grasse, "the noses of Grasse," the men whose
tastes enforce the standards of a global industry. They sat dressed
in neat business suits around a table bearing a cheese, which they
regarded with an interest I could only imagine. On the lawn, young
folk frolicked on bed sheets strewn with rose petals. You really
must try it sometime.
It is in the nature of creatures like Grenouille (I suppose) that
they have no friends. Indeed he has few conversations, and they
are rudimentary. His life, as it must be, is almost entirely interior,
so Twyker provides a narrator (John
Hurt) to establish certain events and facts. Even then, the
film is essentially visual, not spoken, and does a remarkable job
of establishing Grenouille and his world. We can never really understand
him, but we cannot tear our eyes away.
in the stink of the gutter and remains dark and brooding. To rob
a person of his scent is cruel enough, but the way it is done in
this story is truly macabre. Still it can be said that Grenouille
is driven by the conditions of his life and the nature of his spirit.
Also, of course, that he may indeed be the devil's spawn.
This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete
and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not
savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination.
Whishaw succeeds in giving us no hint of his character save a deep
savage need. And Dustin
Hoffman produces a quirky old master whose life is also governed
by perfume, if more positively. Hoffman reminds us here again,
as in "Stranger than Fiction," what a detailed and fascinating
character actor he is, able to bring to the story of Grenouille
precisely what humor and humanity it needs, and then tactfully
leaving it at that. Even his exit is nicely timed.
Why I love this story, I do not know. Why I have read the book
twice and given away a dozen copies of the audiobook, I cannot
explain. There is nothing fun about the story, except the way it
ventures so fearlessly down one limited, terrifying, seductive
dead end, and finds there a solution both sublime and horrifying.
It took imagination to tell it, courage to film it, thought to
act it, and from the audience it requires a brave curiosity about
the peculiarity of obsession.
Grenouille: Ben Whishaw
Richis: Alan Rickman
Laura: Rachel Hurd-Wood
The Plum Girl: Karoline Herfurth
Bishop of Grasse: David Calder
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Tom
Tykwer. Written by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tykwer.
Based on the novel by Patrick Suskind. Running time: 145 minutes.
Rated R (for aberrant behavior involving nudity, violence, sexuality
and disturbing images).