Ah, the Smell of It


Pheromones really do a number on you. Not only do these little chemical bundles dictate much of what (and who) excites us and what (and who) nauseates us, the emotional quality of pheromones and personal smells (as well as the artificial scents we layer on top by way of cleansing products, cosmetics, cigarettes, motor oil, cookie dough, etc.) is intense. Olfactory memory is overwhelmingly acute and elephantesque, which means that the most ephemeral of all the senses is the one most tied to our personal narratives, telling tales of mothers, lovers, best friends' brothers, prison, paradise, the ninth grade, death, comfort, and failure. These powers of smell are dissected in the new film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on the richly ironic and graphically human 1985 German novel. Representing scent and its romantically familiar capacity to enthrall or disgust in a real way would be a trial for any artistic work. This one, though, also has to build its own vision from source material that already accomplished it.

The book Das Parfum was written in the 1980s by literary recluse Patrick Süskind. The story is about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a severely hard-knocked 1700s French boy who lacks personal odor but possesses an unearthly sense of smell. He becomes (wait for it) a perfumer, and develops an obsession with creating the perfect scent, using the essences of the beautiful girls he kills. As befits such a novel, Süskind's style is lurid and floral, almost repulsively beautiful. His facility for describing odor is stunning.

Just as Süskind encountered latter-day hipster cred when Perfumewas named the favorite book of Kurt Cobain (In Utero's "Scentless Apprentice" was inspired by the novel), director Tom Tykwer (who also helmed supercool heist flick Run, Lola, Run and the Cate Blanchett mindfuck Heaven) is similarly revered by the Metacritic demographic. Because both the author of the book and the director of the film are enigmatic artists with unique singular visions, this particular adaptation is plunged into a quagmire of sorts. Forget the nasal whines and impossible expectations that inevitably accompany the adaptation of any beloved book—the film adaptation will be punished for straying (possibly for omitting the significant coming-of-age "cave scene" from the film) and for staying faithful (the fantastical orgy near the end of the book was included, with real European actors). Tykwer's vision is his own, and what would have been a give'er in another director's lap has been given a distinct visual mark, one that doesn't merely color inside the lines of the original. The challenge has been acknowledged: Patrick Süskind was famously reluctant to sell the rights to Perfume (the matter was fictionalized and made into a separate film, Rossini, which Süskind wrote), and both Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick famously proclaimed the novel unadaptable.

The issue of adaptation is complicated further when, as is the case in Perfume, the essential subject matter concerns one of the three senses that can't be directly expressed in either film or literature. Which medium captures scent the best? The visual cues that swell our neurons in recognition, or language that enables our imaginations to recall lifetimes of olfactory sensations? Tykwer uses vividly shot scenes of decaying fish heads and relies on our associated memories of how fetid they'd be. Süskind has no such aids, but illustrates such scenes with words that conjure those same memories, albeit in a necessarily circuitous and intellectualized manner.

A subtle example of the predictable Hollywood tendency to vanillify a nasty work of art into something suitable for mainstream palates is found in the very motivations of Jean-Baptiste. In the novel, the complexities of addiction and compulsion are torn through, while a filmed version will almost always default to the more readily communicated element: here, the grounds for Jean-Baptiste's hunting of virginal geists and his general pursuit of the perfect perfume is configured as more of a sexual quest (witness his fetishistic sniffings) than a more basic and psychologically complicated obsessive one.

European auteur or no European auteur, Perfume is still bound by the fences of Hollywood. The film is not inclusive of the brutality of the novel—it couldn't be. Readers are far more likely to become engaged with vicious, anthrax-scar-ravaged characters if the narrative is compelling. It's a rare film that can entice an audience to spend a few hours with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Perfume the film plays the game and is humanized and sanitized, most noticeably in the casting of a sweet-faced teen dream as Jean-Baptiste, who in Süskind's creation is a hideous scab of a human. The movie has been described as the highest-budget Euro art-house flick, but it's still a dreamy fable brought to you by Dreamworks, featuring Dustin Hoffman.

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