Certainly, many people will try and distance themselves from the luxe sensory experience of Perfume, Tom Tykwer’s ambitious, more than a tad ridiculous, often exhilarating, wildly textured adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s cult classic novel. An intriguingly self-sufficient, heavily metaphorical slab of expressionistic romantic-horror that by virtue of its highly descriptive style, reportedly became both the biggest selling German novel since Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as well as a mainstay in creative writing courses worldwide, Süskind’s book never seemed particularly filmable, as it’s predicated almost entirely on describing 18th-century France via its smells: from the fetid to the flowering. Tykwer’s task, then, is monumental, and while the approach may not be novel (lots of close-ups, rhythmic cutting, evocative photography, John Hurt, natch, providing storybook voiceover, and of course, shots of nostrils flaring…), the affect is nearly swoony: long passages without dialogue or narration, drinking in the nape of a neck, the turn of an arm…The film feels so stripped down to the bare essentials that when it gets to its final half-hour, wall to wall with sensory flights of fancy, it doesn’t seem remotely alienating. If anything, Tykwer’s great with consistency of tone, and Perfume, a dastardly difficult project that flirts with the risible in its Goya-esque mixing of the grotesque and the gorgeous, benefits from his steadfast cinematic gaze.
So, what is it? More on the film later when it opens, but it’s basically the story of a serial killer, born into stench, with heightened olfactory senses, spurred on to murder young women so that he can claim, own, and perhaps literally bottle their allure. The young man’s mysterious nature (he seems to both grovel beneath and float above humanity) make him both devil and angel (fittingly, actor Ben Whishaw is alternately pin-up cute and toad-like repellent, based on how he’s shot); as a cipher, he’s terrifying on the page, yet on screen (one of the film’s inherent drawbacks) perhaps more penetrable, magnetic, and less of the unknown being he needs to be.
It’s a film that seems destined to please those who hold the novel close to their hearts (though I don’t know if the book would today live up to its outsized reputation; appropriately, the book wafts across my memory like a faint scent from childhood). Every scene reimagines Süskind’s key ingredients for the screen with exacting lushness, and even the sizable missteps (Dustin Hoffman camping it up as the grand master perfume maker Baldini…go ahead, laugh, I think it’s okay…) add to the entire project’s ever-growing unease. There’s even a whiff of Hammer horror and a splash of Nosferatu in this film, which is even odder on screen than in novel form. Rather than bring Süskind’s creepy fable to the mainstream, Tykwer’s film will probably become as much of a cult item as its source material. Mission accomplished, then, I say.