02 July 2008

Filmbook: "Perfume" (2006)

Anyone can claim that a great book can never be made into a decent movie, but it's a different thing entirely when the claimant is Stanley Kubrick. The famous director singled out Patrick Suskind's PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER as material he had been interested in adapting but couldn't find a way to do so. According to IMDb, several other directors were attracted to this story of, functionally, a psychopath.

Hey, psychopaths make great movie characters! And while Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is fictional, his story as told in PERFUME is explored in such sensuous detail as to fool many (including myself) as to his existence. Grenouille, an orphan born and abandoned in a Paris fish market, has an incredible, uncanny sense of smell, a talent which he eventually puts to work as a perfumer's assistant in Paris and beyond. But this talent, or ability, becomes his undoing when he discovers the most perfect scent -- that of a red-headed girl selling fruit in the streets -- and becomes obsessed with capturing it.

Describing Grenouille's monomania is easy in print compared to the comparison of every scent he comes across in his travels. But that's nothing compared to the challenge of evoking a particular smell onscreen. In that sense (no pun intended), Tom Tykwer's film "Perfume" is a failure, because it never completely held me the way the book did. Many things that are explained in detail in the book are shown without comment here, and in trying to condense several events in the book Twyker removes one major episode and turns another character into a know-it-all to hurry along the action. (That big crowd scene though? 98 percent from the book. Again, comments!) He also added several scenes that look great filmed but appear nowhere in the book, though I might not have realized this if the book hadn't been so vivid and so horrifying.

Still, I feel that in a sense someone had to make a movie of this supposedly "unfilmable" story, because I like it when people attempt the impossible. And I don't doubt that someday, another director will read the book and claim he or she can do better. The lead performance of Ben Whishaw as Grenouille, while not as memorable as my image of him in the book, is quite strong and for its faults the movie was never boring, though at times extremely off-putting.

Filmbook Verdict: Read the book; maybe see the movie if you like Tykwer, period dramas or movies about psychopaths. The editor-in-chief of Vintage, who publishes the novel, told the International Herald Tribune that the movie would "send people back to the book," and while not wholly inaccurate, I don't think the movie is so good or inspiring that it would motivate viewers to read the book to learn more. Yeah, and I'm an optimist.

Spoilers in the comments! If you want to read a full review with spoilers all the way down, I recommend the AV Club's My Year of Flops entry on "Perfume." (Disclaimer: I write for them, though not in the film section.)

1 comment:

Ellen said...

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER! Heeeeeeere's some spoilers.

(Last chance)

OK, the major episode Tykwer takes out of the film is alluded to in the cave scene, where Grenouille smells himself and discovers he has no scent. When he returns to civilization he is quasi-adopted by a duke with an interest in scientific projects, who uses Grenouille to prove he could take a wild, feral man and turn him into a courtly gentleman in 7 days. So he (for lack of a better word) makes over Grenouille, but when he tries to put perfume on him he resists. Instead Grenouille mixes up for himself a "human" scent, with a little sweat and unpleasantness, but the kind of scent that is meant to reassure people of his humanity. This is a sign of his nasal genius but also of his freakishness and desire to blend in for his nefarious purposes.

Also, in the episode with Alan Rickman's character, Rickman isn't nearly as knowing about the killer and his plans. He's mostly concerned with protecting his daughter. That maze scene and that dance-by-the-fire scene are never in the book.

That whole orgy part is in the book though. In case you were wondering.

Also, you know how something bad seems to happen to all of Grenouille's caretakers or guardians in the movie (the old woman, the tanner, Dustin Hoffman)? That is a big deal in the book, and you get a lot more about each of them. I was hoping to get more of that from the movie.