Running Time: 144 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+
Perfume is a skilful adaptation of a celebrated novel by Patrick Suskind who is said to have resisted the idea of making a film of his book - which many considered to be unfilmable. Now director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run, Princess and the Warrior, Heaven) in collaboration with British writer-director, Andrew Birkin, and German producer Bernd Eichenger have filmed the unfilmable.
One of the reasons for declaring that the novel could not be filmed was that it is about a sense that does not lend itself to cinema (except by means of a gimmick): the sense of smell. However, Tykwer rightly stated that a printed book is not a medium for smell either. The communication is in the writing and its evocations. So, for a film, the evocation is in the images.
Perfume is primarily about smell and touch, much less so about sight and hearing, though they are not, of course, irrelevant to the film. Rather, the evocation of audience imagination is by suggestion through sight and hearing. Film lecturers talk about the camera and 'point of view'. In Perfume, the audience is offered the central character's 'point of scent'.
Before considering how Tykwer communicates this experience of scent and smell on the part of Jean Baptiste, it is necessary to focus on who that character is. It is Paris in the 18th century, the most populated city in Europe, a city which, so the elegant narration (from the prose of the novel) by John Hurt reminds us, stank. Personal hygiene, urban garbage and pollution, the welcome as well as noisome odours from places like the fish market meant a distinctive and sometimes overwhelming aroma. (The word choice available to suggest this already has its limitations: smell, odour, scent, aroma and, of course, perfume.)
Perfume is what motivates Jean Baptiste, an unwanted baby born under a counter amongst the fish waste as his mother took some minutes off from her work. Growing up in an orphanage, he became more and more aware of his giftedness, his ability to detect and relish a vast variety of odours. After working in a tannery for years during his adolescence, he has the opportunity to come across some tantalising and beautiful odours amongst the rich and Parisian society: perfumes. Perfume becomes the be-all and end-all (literally) of his life.
It can be said, without spoiling the plot, that we know from the opening of the film (where Tykwer immediately limits our vision with darkness and silhouette but focuses on an inhaling nose) that Jean Baptiste has been accused of murder and is to be tortured and executed, to the delight of a crowd baying for blood and vengeance.
Then the flashback to his birth and the narration. The first half of the film then shows how Jean Baptiste impressed an ageing and out-of-date perfume creator and becomes an expert in recipes for perfumes that become the talk of Paris. The old man is played with some relish (and some peculiar variations of broken Italian and American accents) by Dustin Hoffman.
It is in this context that Jean Baptiste, fascinated by a young serving woman wearing a perfume, kills his first victim. He does not want to murder her but to keep her quiet. He strangles her. But, Jean Baptiste has very little moral sense and is not much bothered by what he has done.
The second half of the film has him go to Grasse, a perfume-making town in Provence where fields of lavender and other plants are cultivated. After demonstrating his skills, he is employed there but he has become obsessed with creating the perfect perfume - which are made from the personal odours of beautiful women. Thus, he begins a hidden and solitary career as a serial killer. The culminating victim is to be the beautiful daughter of the lord of the local manor (Alan Rickman).
While he pursues his goals, the audience focuses on a version of an 18th century panic, hysteria, the attempt to cope with a serial killer in a village and the investigation. Finally, there is an execution scene which takes us from reality and goes into the mind and imagination of Jean Baptiste: everybody understands what he has done, asks his pardon and are so influenced by his perfect perfume that they love everyone near them, throw off inhibitions and clothes and indulge in a love-in (which might have made Ken Russell in his heyday rather jealous).
The running time of the film is quite long, almost two and a half hours. For those not drawn into the themes and the pace of the film, it will seem very long indeed and give them time to disapprove and even think the film and its style pretentious. For those attracted and intrigued by theme and treatment, the length will not matter too much as they have entered into another world, into the 18th century settings, into the mind and morbid imagination of Jean Baptiste as well as the fears of the society he has intimidated.
But, most of all, this audience will have been seduced, sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously, by the visual evocation of so many smell experiences, a range of odours from the vile to the exquisite, that are the idiosyncratic experiences of Jean Baptiste. That is the skill of the screenplay, of Tykwer's directing style and the editing and the performance of Ben Wishaw who, with his skinny build and air of being perpetually put upon, has chosen to make his character something of a 'tabula rasa', someone who passively absorbs rather than being proactive (except for his grotesque series of murders and his bizarre methods of using animal fats to absorb the essence of his victims).
Tom Tykwer has every reason to be pleased with and proud of Perfume: the Story of a Murderer.
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.