When Patrick Suskind's Perfume was published in 1985, it was one of those books which you just had to have on your bedside table, but for the next decade and a half the author rejected all requests to have his novel turned into a film, arguing that there would be no point applying sounds and pictures to a fable of niffs and pongs.
Its anti-hero is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who has the greatest sense of smell the world has ever known. And in 18th-century Paris, there's plenty of smelling to be done. Growing up in a grotesque orphanage and an even more grotesque tannery, Grenouille is swamped by muck, vomit and rotting fish. Across the Seine, however, he gets a whiff of a world where each new perfume is greeted as rapturously as a range of haute couture. His olfactory genius is recognised by a has-been Italian perfumer (Dustin Hoffman), who teaches him how to formulate fragrances of his own. But preserving the smell of flowers isn't enough for Grenouille. His ambition is to bottle the essence of female beauty, so he follows his nose to Grasse, an idyllic mountain town where perfume-makers practise the art of enflourage. There he learns that if he wants to capture the scent of a woman, he has to kill her first.
You might assume that Perfume would cry out for smell-o-vision, but a pack of scratch 'n' sniff cards couldn't recreate the story's odours as Grenouille perceives them, so Tom Tykwer compensates with woozy close-ups and stunning period scenery which is so sumptuous that it's almost suffocating. It's a film you can wallow in. Marie Antoinette seems like an Adam and the Ants video by comparison.
As it turns out, though, Perfume's problem isn't representing what's going on inside Grenouille's nostrils but what's inside his head. As played by the young stage star Ben Whishaw, he's a lanky urchin who looks as if he gets so much from the smell of food that he doesn't bother to eat it. But while he may have the senses and sensibility of Hannibal Lecter, he doesn't have the vocabulary. Grenouille is a semi-autistic blank, and the other characters, apart from Hoffman's ageing dandy, aren't much more than lab rats waiting for his deadly experiments. The only way to know how any of them feels is to listen to John Hurt's professorial narration, but that, surely, is cheating (especially as Hurt did exactly the same job in Dogville and Manderlay).
There's no denying that Perfume is an extraordinarily well-made film, with thematic grandeur, visual splendour and a vein of inky black comedy. Suskind and his devotees should approve of it, and everyone else should luxuriate in it. But its emotional deadness makes it a bit like a real perfume. It's a sensory treat, but it doesn't take long to fade away.Reuse content