Ambitions unrealized
Tom Tykwer
Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood
The Setup: 
Story of the life of a man with a hyper-developed sense of smell.

There are some things that work in a book that just don’t work in a movie. Four of them are sensory experiences other than sight. Even hearing can’t quite be given its due, since you can’t sustain long pieces of music in a movie, and the required accompanying visuals only distract from the sound. But something like the sense of smell is, if not theoretically impossible, then quite, quite challenging. Which was a bit of the curiosity to see Perfume, a story based entirely around its main character’s hyper-sensitive sense of smell.

I had read the book this was adapted from [and a friend of a friend did the English translation], so there was a fair amount of interest to see how it would turn out. The movie follows the events of the book quite faithfully: we begin in 1738 with the birth of our hero in a fish market in Paris. The city is quite a dirty, smelly place them, and one of the things everyone remembers from the book was its vivid description of the Paris of the time, this grimy fish market in particular. In the movie we see the infant lying there smelling everything, and are introduced to his remarkable sense of smell as the camera tracks along, showing us the various things he’s smelling. It gives the viewer a theoretical sense of what happening; you tell yourself, “he can smell everything,” but it’s just not as sensually effective as being able to imagine the whole thing with the guidance of the book. This problem—the distance created by being shown pictures and having to think about how they smell—afflicts the entire movie and creates a distance that keeps one from fully engaging at any time. Anyway, this guy is our main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. His mother leaves him under her fish stall to die, but he is discovered and his mother is hung as a murderer. A friend who saw it said that the Alan Rickman character who shows up later was the man who discovered and saved the baby, but I don’t remember him there.

So he goes to an orphanage, where the other kids find him weird. In the book much is made [and earlier on] about how Grenouille has no smell, which allows him to be sort of invisible [you just have to buy it], but that’s not a big deal here.

So he grows up and one night becomes obsessed with this red-haired fruit seller [who looks quite a bit like Franke Potente, of Tykwer’s own Run, Lola, Run and The Bourne Identity, and whom I was wishing would show up here]. He loves her scent, but inadvertently ends up killing her. This leads to his wish to learn to capture and preserve scent, which leads to him apprenticing himself to a surprisingly good Dustin Hoffman as a perfumer. He teaches Grenouille to distill scent in return for Grenouille making him a bunch of perfumes and reinvigorating his business. Hoffmann dies the minute Grenouille leaves, the way that everyone who touches him seems to die after he leaves them, which I think made sense and had something to do with something in the book, but here is just another curious touch.

I don’t think I’ll bother going on. Eventually Grenouille goes and lives in a cave [for like a year in the book—here it seems like he stayed overnight, although he does have a long beard when he walks out in the morning], then becomes apprentice to another perfumer who has a method of preserving scent that is better for preserving the scent of virginal women, which is what Grenouille really wants to do. Once he figures out how he goes on a crime spree which leads to the ending. My other friends who saw the movie felt that it was mostly redeemed by it’s odd climax, which really is, ah, quite something.

It all really worked in the book. Not just because of the scent thing, but because the whole project here is really a literary IDEA rather than a story that is supposed to make sense as something that literally happens to a literal man. The book trafficked more in symbols and ideas; what does it mean to smell everything, what does it mean to have no smell, what does it mean to preserve a scent, etc., that a movie, with it’s literalization of everything, just can’t match. By the way, special mention must be made of the FANTASTIC poster for this movie, which beautifully expresses the idea of killing women to create a wonderful scent.

Despite everything, I liked it. Mostly because it’s just showing you things that are different: the stinky squalor of 18th-century Paris slums, all sorts of small French villages, and is telling a story that is just not something you see every day. Watching was kind of an interesting vacation, with unexpected scenes and unusual sights, so that’s worth something. And the movie itself is interesting, even though it doesn’t all work. I’d much rather that than sitting through another overblown action pic or generic superhero thing or indie thing about quirky characters coming to know themselves. No one I know who’s seen it has been sorry about it.

Should you watch it: 

If you want. It’s not that great, but it’s kind of interesting and certainly diverting, which is more than one can say for a lot of “better” movies.