| Natalia Ryabchikova
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Cast: Ben Winshaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman
It took a long time to persuade Patrick Süskind to sell the rights to his most famous book to a film company. He just didn’t want “Das Parfum” to be adapted for the screen - and for a good reason. His challenge was to convey the multiplicity of the sensation of smell with words. To translate words describing scents into visuals and sounds is much more difficult and seems much less necessary. Stanley Kubrick finally conceded that the subject was impossible to film. The same thought probably led Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman and Tim Burton to abandon the project. The mere fact that Tom Tykwer hasn’t followed their example and went through with “The Perfume” shows the 40-year-old director hasn’t lost his youthful self-confidence and deserves a special cheer.
For Tykwer, who became internationally famous with his quirky “Run, Lola, Run” in 1998, the new project became a pass into the big league. Ten million euros paid for the movie rights alone meant that the project must be made as commercially successful as possible. In adapting the novel he was assisted by producer Bernd Eichinger who had spent years coaxing Süskind to sell him the film rights, and by Andrew Birkin who had written scripts for Luc Besson’s “History of Jeanne D’Ark” and another big-scale adaptation “The Name of the Rose”. With their help a dark and uncomfortable book has almost been turned into a melodrama. Tykwer secures his position precisely at this point of “almost”. He must always remember the box-office, but money doesn’t smell, so the film still issues a faint flavor of art-house cinema.
The story carefully follows Süskind’s text, and for those who haven’t read the book, the film has a subtitle. Where “The Story of a Murderer” loses in novelty, it gains in consistency. The writers are so meticulous in their adaptation of the book that the scene of the final orgy could have been done better only by Peter Greenaway. In fact, I’m not at all certain about that.
Apart from the fundamental impossibility to adequately transport the verbal fabric of “Das Parfum” to the screen, the main difficulty was the choice of the leading actor. At first sight Ben Winshaw, who has already played a young Keith Richards in film and Hamlet on stage, is just too handsome to play a thick-headed murderer. His super-model physique and unisex appearance are so up-to-date that at some moment the film gets on the verge of becoming just another “A Knight’s Tale” The crowd stops short of raising a yet another rendition of “We Will Rock You” and the helicopters are about to set forth on search for the maniac. Tykwer still couldn’t resist including one bird’s eye view shot.
Fortunately, Winshaw, who doesn’t speak a word for the most part of the film has this sort of screen presence that turns the scenes without him into a bad replica of an average costume TV-series. With Winshaw off-screen the other actors seem to lose a portion of their animation, they talk and look like cardboard figures. Alan Rickman, for example, entirely fades by comparison, and only Dustin Hoffman as an old Italian perfume maker can successfully stand up to Winshaw’s appeal. This star-quality is justified in the final episode – the viewer is lead to virtually the same state as the crowd worshipping the murderer.
As for the smell itself, the kaleidoscope of textures, colors and sounds at some point finally reaches the stage at which shapes and shadows on the screen become almost palpable and hearing becomes painfully acute.
As for the visual stimuli Tykwer does a good job balancing physiological vividness with digital gloss. He efficiently combines rotten fish a-la Jan van Eyck and flowering meadows a-la Van Gogh, Titian-style beauties go together with Brueghel-style beasts. The set decorator spared no expense on sticky mud and it was especially well rendered by Frank Griebe’s camera, as well as Grenouille’s sleeveless jackets a-la naturelle that the costume designer had carefully torn along the collar. In spite of these concessions to prêt-a-porter and the use of conventional pictorial decisions Tykwer still succeeds to render in flesh the insane hunger for and pain of possession that has nothing to do with any of the five senses.