Remember the track ‘Scentless Apprentice’ on Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero? Well, its grungy clamour was inspired by Patrick Süskind’s 1985 bestseller Perfume – fated frontman Kurt Cobain seeing a kindred spirit in the German author’s pariah protagonist and venting his own alienation in the banshee chorus, “Go away! Go aw-aaaaay!”
Thing is, Perfume isn’t simply the story of a misanthropist or miserablist. It’s The Story Of A Murderer. Which makes audience identification a bit tricky. Thankfully, the filmmakers haven’t ducked the problem by softening their source; this is a fearlessly faithful adaptation. And like the novel, it manages to engross us in its 18th century anti-hero’s terrible obsession.
Call it empathy for the Devil. Watching Layer Cake actor Ben Whishaw’s queasily intense turn as Grenouille, so hopelessly in thrall to his goal, you can’t help thinking back to Peter Lorre’s tortured kiddie-killer in M . A few will want to bow out when our man starts snorting the fresh corpse of a willowy plum-seller; others will find themselves sucked into a whirlpool of warped desire that doesn’t stop churning.
Amorality isn’t the book’s only hurdle, of course. How do you bring scent to celluloid? Leave it to the lavish production design: carrying a weighty price-tag for a Euro-movie ($60 million), the film recreates pre-Revolutionary France in a pungent detail that wafts off the screen, from the fetid fish market of the opening birth-horror (shot in rancid greys) to the balmy environs of Provence (fresh blues, lush greens, vivid purples). Run, Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer eschews impressionism in favour of narrative drive, an approach that particularly pays off in the suspenseful second half, as Grenouille starts killing and distilling his way around the town of Grasse. With Dustin Hoffman’s impishly entertaining mentor now out of the picture, the eminent-thesp baton passes to Alan Rickman, playing doting dad to An American Haunting ’s Rachel Hurd-Wood, who’s suitably luminous as the ultimate object of desire. And for those missing the ironic tang of Süskind’s prose, there’s John Hurt’s Dogville -esque narration.
Aimed more at head than heart, it’s a slightly overlong movie packing a crowd-scene climax with a baroque excess set to really divide audiences. Nevertheless, it doesn’t dispel the sweet smell of success; like Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch , Perfume proves you can make a fine film out of the unfilmable.