is one book (despite its appearance of being three) that
has been successfully translated to the screen with a hobbit-sized
minority of critical and public dissent. This book has been
around long enough, is famous enough and has prompted enough
swathes of visual representation that the filmmakers were
on pretty solid ground attempting to adapt it and subsequently
succeeding all the way to uncle Oscar™. The book was
gloriously visual and features scenes that could only be
rendered by some form of cinematic animation, so fantastic
are their nature. Of course, you know which brick-sized
volume I'm talking about.
about adapting a book in which the principal dramatic theme
is utterly invisible and whose supremely odious, odourless
protagonist is your only guide in a bizarre and alien world
of rotting fish, essential oils, infusions of roses and
his own particular holy grail, the sublime bottled scents
of virgins? I mean, who in their right artistic mind would
take on a challenge like that? Even Kubrick balked...
of us have at our disposal a multi-trillion dollar production
company. In this company, money is – in this case literally
– no object. In this vast, cavernous space, you can make
movies of such scope, such dramatic intensity that you will
be moved to rampant ecstasy or thundering oblivion if you
knew of what wonders this production company was capable.
But like real production companies, you need a script. For
our own, we need a novel and the trickle or deluge of unfettered
imagination. Each of our personal production companies shares
the same anatomical name and the only drawback – and think
of the wasted marketing opportunities – is that the movie
is for one and one only and in most cases, it's one screening
over many hours never to be exploited in ancillary markets.
This is personal cinema, as personal as it gets, as intangible
smoke and once the smoke is borne on the air, try burning
that to DVD. Read the following sentence: "John walks
down the street." Isn't it extraordinary? You can already
see John, the colour of his hair, his type of shoes, his
shirt colour. You own John even though you know next to
nothing about him. Take a bow, your astonishing mind and
take a standing ovation its extraordinary ability to see
words on a page, translate them into the perfect movie for
you and then have that imagination move you to rapture.
remember my moment vividly.
was sitting in the Chesterfield sofa'ed first floor of the
Chandos pub on Charing Cross Road in the late 80s. I had
turned the page from 243 to 244 of the novel in which I
was engrossed and it was to be the climax of the book –
the key moment. I had savoured every translated word and
was oh so mildly irked that I couldn't appreciate the language
in which the book had been originally written and what extra
and unusual joys would have lain in store if only I understood
German. As soon as the protagonist stepped down from a carriage,
I was lost to this world we think we know so well. I was
so thoroughly and utterly at the writer's feet, I may have
been one of those people witnessing the fictional event
itself. I was so far into the world author Patrick Süsskind
had created, I may as well have been transported by opiates.
I was in a deep well, its waters pungent but still. I was
at a profound level of my imagination prompted by the words
on the page, a place where things effervesce and surge out
of you, things that no more can be stopped than blood from
an arterial slash. But I was also the blood coursing through
the novel, now a part of my own personal production company.
It was like being united by imagination and if you think
all this sounds horribly pretentious you're probably right.
It does sound horribly pretentious. But who cares what it
sounds like when it is so utterly magical? It just means
I have no words (or the wrong ones) to describe it or the
ones I choose are inadequate. Tears started streaming down
my face like a watery march as if they'd been held in straining
barracks for the few days it had taken me to consume Perfume,
a novel of such richness of depravity and disgust that it
was achingly beautiful.
course, the more cynical may suggest that there were other
reasons for such an unmanly outburst in public. I may have
chipped a nail. In all honesty, it was page 244. This leaves
me with a dilly of a pickle. My mind-movie was made, the
experience savoured, remembered, re-conjured by several
re-reads and the experience passed on to many others, or
rather the 'script' so they could create their own unique
mind-movie of the book. I first finished Perfume almost 20 years ago. 20 years. And now, there is an honest
to god real life movie out there... It's almost sad and
the words of Orson Welles spring to mind when he was asked
whether a filmmaker should respect a novel he/she's translating
to the screen. Welles, in typical candour, replied "Absolutely
not..." and I have a mind that's coming around to agree
have got to, as a first imperative, bring something new
to the screen. Faithful adaptations to well known books
are ponderous in the main to those who have created those
images in our own minds already with much better cerebral
resources. As I mentioned, Lord of the Rings is so huge in scope and such a visual feast, it was always
going to look sumptuous and satisfy if the film-maker was
competent. Well, with Perfume are there
elements you can 'play' with?: The cess-city that was 18th
century Paris, the abject and heart-stopping squalor, the
precision of the protagonist's work, the murders and grisly
aftermaths? But then the purists would demand their ten
grams of scented flesh. OK, so how would you make a movie
about a man who kills virgins, bottles their essences and
then... something extraordinary happens which I can't really
these circumstances I think Tom Tykwer has made close to
a gnat's hair of the best film of Perfume that could possibly be made. He's slavishly faithful, sometimes
over-literally so. He got the length of Grenouille's wilderness
beard wrong by about two feet and there were no knives in
the very final scene but apart from those deliberate practical
oversights his faithfulness is almost absolute. The visual
tricks of which he is very well aware as part of his cinematic
palette were either stylistically toned down or absent.
I just wanted the 'scent' scenes to be a little more visually
evocative but he went for huge close ups of noses and the
scented subject with no discernable special effect, not
even a haze around the scented subject. He employs a staccato
editing style that is effective without doubt. The only
time Tykwer lets his digital tools get an obvious airing
is in one impossible shot that if shown twenty years ago
would have made Kubrick gasp. The anti-hero protagonist,
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, needs one more virgin to slay
and distil her essence for the perfect perfume. He's made
his mind up, he's resolute but he's failed several times
to snare her. Her father knows there is something on the
wind (Grenouille's nostrils flare at the mere trace of her
scent on, indeed, the wind) and distraught with concern
for his beloved daughter's safety, he flees with her, tricking
anyone following them in a normal fashion into believing
they are still in a northbound carriage. Grenouille's über-senses
(as far from 'normal' as you could get) tells him otherwise
and the camera follows the scented trail over Provence's
undulating hillsides and right to a swooping and tracking
mid shot of the girl, red hear flowing, galloping on a horse.
I can imagine a lot of people took a lot of time to realise
that shot. But it's really the only "Look what I can
do!" shot in the whole movie.
two things that were notable right up front that disquieted
me a smidgeon were the movie's certificate and John Hurt's
wonderful cigarette filtered voice. How could Perfume possibly be a 15 certificate? This meant, had to mean, that
the finale had to be tamely presented (unthinkable) or superbly
done, a subtle blend of suggestion and hardcore... I think
Tykwer did a great job with very difficult material but
if any scene in the history of movies needed the freedom
of an 18 certificate, it was this one. This is the scene
that Ken Russell, in his hey day, would have gone down on
the Pope to direct. Now don't get me wrong. I admire and
enjoy hearing John Hurt's voice. Again, more faithfulness;
his narration is very close to the English translation of
the novel (a nod to John E. Woods, the translator). But,
as a movie director, if you've taken on Perfume,
surely the challenge is to visually tell the story and not
rely of the crutch of narration. I guess there are certain
pieces of information an audience needs and for the film
to be successful it has to make sense and appeal to a larger
group than just the Perfume readers. But
if you are led by a voice... wait. I just changed my mind.
It's not as if the movie is 100% covered in chat. If I'd
not read the book several times, I think I would have enjoyed
and required Hurt's narration. Scratch that niggle. It's
hard to be empathic towards those who've not read this wonderful
book but that's my only, lonely nod to empathy.
visuals, as you now must expect, are gorgeous. Paris is
fetid and bewigged and crumbling away into the Seine but
the wide shots are remarkable – digital one assumes. Cinema
is so good at doing the historical recreation. I had no
problem believing I was there – CG used expertly and appropriately.
All the arts and crafts associated with big budget film-making
are wonderfully rendered. There's not a frame that's not
lovingly crafted. Tykwer and his cinematographer Frank Griebe,
do glories with shadow and often Grenouille is just that
– a shadow, a sinister human shaped black spider with moonlight
flecked hair and nails dirtier than Fagin's. Alan Rickman
is sturdy as the final victim's desperate father. There
is an irony that Rickman (known to the world as Harry
Potter's Professor Snape, much to his chagrin)
is playing someone on the run from a creature with such
an expert nose for potions...
But Perfume was always going to sit on the
shoulders of one man – the actor cast as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.
In the book, he is unremarkable, "ugly, true but not
so extremely ugly that people would necessarily have taken
fright of him." You cannot possibly have the weight
of a vast movie on your back and cast an actor who's ugly.
In this case, a movie wants to attract people to its ugliness.
In this regard, the striking Ben Wishaw does a very good
job re-creating the man who hates mankind, the man who craves
love and when he receives it, denounces it for the pleasures
of hate. But then as Pingu in Nathan Barley,
he'd have the perfect passport to misanthropy albeit one
from a few centuries beyond Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's time.
His manner and physicality suit the odious creature (is
that a compliment?) but he is far from ugly which is acceptable
in a gross, broad Hollywood sort of way.
is solid as the wealthy, devoted father but the perfumer
Baldini, as played by Dustin Hoffman (sporting the only
American accent in the cast) is somewhat caricatured. He
exists in Paris, the owner of a run down perfumers, usurped
by a younger more creative mixer of exotic scents. Along
comes Grenouille (a major pleasure of any creative work
is witnessing the misfit outdoing the seasoned giants at
any game) and before you know it, the venerable old gent
is leeching off his protégé. Hoffman plays
it broad and while it's never grating, his performance tends
to push you out of the movie for the time he's on screen.
Again, don't get me wrong. Hoffman is an enormous talent
but here I would – as the director – have asked for less.
am enormously relieved that such a Herculean effort to bring Perfume to the screen has resulted in its
budget and its P & A costs (prints struck to distribute
and the advertising costs) having both already been recouped
in European distribution alone. This means the million it's
made in the US so far on a paltry 280 screen release can
only be good news.
one, Tom. Next time, pick a project a little easier to realise.