Bernd Eichinger, one of the more ambitious continental filmmakers, has produced his share of schlock, if that's not too harsh a word to describe lucrative flicks like Resident Evil and The Fantastic Four, as well as literate and challenging films including Last Exit to Brooklyn, Nowhere in Africa and Downfall. For more than two decades, he has wanted to turn Patrick Süskind's blockbuster novel, Perfume, into a movie. Now that he has done it, we can admire his work with appropriate awe, not because he has made a superb film but because he has made it at all.
Perfume, for those who missed the '80s publishing phenom, sold more than 15 million copies in 45 languages, making it the most successful German-language novel since Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. A historical horror story set in 18th-century France, it details the fantastic life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, bastard son of a fishmonger born atop a stinking heap of guts in the filthiest market in Paris. His mother would have left him to die had he not emitted a piercing cry provoked, we later learn, by his preternatural sense of smell.
Following a series of improbable events that force him to pass through the foulest quarters of the famously dirty city, Grenouille manages to ingratiate himself to a renowned perfumer with his ability to create exquisite scents, a gift that mocks his own lack of body odor. Isolated from the world even as he experiences it intensely through his peerless nose, he lacks affect but craves affection.
Thus, Grenouille...the autistic artist repulsed by his fellow humans yet longing to be more human himself, and driven mad by the most intoxicating aroma of all, that of an unspoiled virgin. The scent of a woman inspires in him a fiendish notion, to create a fragrance that is, in effect, the essence of life itself, an elixir of love with overtones of sex and power, undertones of rage and revenge. That he must kill the girls to capture their pheromones renders his obsession particularly noisome.
Perfume is a great read and, like most great reads, exceedingly difficult to translate to film. Eichinger co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator Andrew Birkin (The Name of the Rose) and director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), remaining faithful to the book. Compressing the narrative into a running time under two-and-a-half hours is no mean feat, but the filmmakers faced more daunting hurdles--recreating Paris and the provincial city of Grasse circa 1750, for one; provoking empathy for a protagonist who happens to be a sociopath, for another.
Production designer Uli Hanisch and cinematographer Frank Griebe, with a little help from their CGI friends, manage the first task just fine, putting the cinematic city of Barcelona to good use as a stand-in for Louis XV's France. Eichinger and Tykwer spared no expense, employing more than 5,000 extras and, for the movie's opening scene, filling Barcelona's Gothic Quarter with 2.5 tons of decaying fish and another ton of rotting meat. Perfume wallows in aesthetic squalor.
Persuading viewers to identify with a morbidly introspective and paradoxically insensate leading man, however, proved allusive. Newcomer Ben Whishaw, who won rave reviews as Hamlet during a recent run at London's Old Vic, imbues Grenouille with a feral agility, his performance reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg's Spider. But Eichinger and Tykwer, unlike Cronenberg, can't decide what genre they are working in--picaresque, horror, period, satire (for the finale appears so silly on screen we can only watch it with a wry smile)--and Whishaw's nuanced interpretation is overwhelmed by the picture's direction.
Dustin Hoffman appears as Baldini, the senescent perfumer who exploits Grenouille's talents; he doesn't look good or act well in a wig. Alan Rickman co-stars as Richis, the wealthy merchant who spends the movie fretting about his nubile daughter, Laura, played by Rachel Hurd-Wood; she is as ruddy as he is dyspeptic, but their roles are in strict service of the plot. Indeed, the lavender fields of Provence, captured in full bloom, leave more of an impression than any actor in the movie except Whishaw.
Eichinger, Tykwer and company put a lot of blood, cense and tears into this formidable project, and they made the right choices--overplaying Grenouille's victimhood, underplaying the violence of his actions, infusing his obsession with a perverse nobility--but cinema is too literal (as opposed to literary) to allow sympathy for the devil. As Cronenberg discovered with Crash, some stories are best left on the printed page.