Deemed “unfilmable” since its release in 1985, Patrick Süskind’s best-selling novel finally makes its big-screen debut after a decade in development hell that saw both Ridley Scott and Tim Burton pass on the project after showing early interest.
Set in eighteenth-century Paris the story begins with the gruesome birth of the book’s anti-hero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), a borderline autistic blessed with a super-human sense of smell. Initially unsure what to do with his unique talent, Grenouille eventually discovers his calling when he becomes apprentice to master perfumier Baldini (Hoffman).
But after a violent accident in a Paris backstreet he develops an unhealthy fascination with the scent of a woman (nothing to do with Al Pacino’s 1992 weepie thankfully) and devotes his life to bottling the perfect female scent - a gruesome pursuit that ultimately leads to bloody murder.
Author Patrick Süskind refused to sell the rights to his novel for nearly 15 years as he strongly believed that translating Grenouille’s remarkable sense of smell to the big screen - without the use of the now defunct “Smell-O-Vision” - was an impossible task.
But fortunately his concerns have proven to be unfounded, thanks mainly to director Tom Tykwer’s clever use of close-ups on Whishaw’s twitching proboscis and the glorious attention to period detail.
Frank Griebe’s lush cinematography, funded by a relatively large $60 million budget, must also take much of the credit, competently bringing the filthy realities of 18th century Paris to life.
An insightful, hour long, “making of” documentary deals thoroughly with producer Bernd Eichinger’s struggles to bring this “unfilmable” novel to the big screen. After finally securing the rights from Author Patrick Süskind, he then met resistance from screenwriter Andrew Birkin who didn’t feel capable of translating such a hefty narrative to the big screen.
The “odour conversion” featurette highlights the further problems faced by director Tom Twyker in trying to bring the smells of Perfume to a cinema going audience, with particular reference to his use of close ups on Whishaws’ nose. Completing the package is a detailed look at the work of director of photography Frank Griebe, and a superfluous “Location Scouting” featurette.
The film suffers however with a terribly bloated plot, and while cutting the hefty original material down into a manageable screenplay is an achievement not to be sniffed at, Perfume runs on for at least 30 minutes too long.
It’s certainly no stinker, but with a better ending, stronger casting (Whishaw fails to recapture the brilliance of his 2004 turn as Hamlet at the Old Vic), and a more focused screenplay, who nose what Tykwer, who showed such promise with Run, Lola, Run, might have achieved?
Staring: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd Wood, John Hurt
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
Extras: Making of documentary, Location Scouting featurette, Odour conversion featurette, Director of Photography’s work