I cycled to Mold yesterday and puffed up the long hilll to Theatre Clwyd to watch the film of the book, Perfume: the story of a murderer. The session was matinee and really for seniors over 60, but they let me in because there were spare seats and I paid the full whack. Sitting near the front so I could hear the dialogue better with my wonky ears, I heard a few gasps from the aged behind me when the first few nipples were exposed as Grenouille grazed a beautiful woman’s body with his nose. But I am used to the concept now of wrinklies being more sexually aware and active than we preferred to think when we were young! There was a small ripple of ahhs, and applause during the orgy near the end (orgy on screen not in the auditorium – although I couldnt see the back row, so who knows…)
Although Kubrick asserted that translating the book Perfume to celluloid was unfeasible, director Tom Tykwer has achieved it. IMHO the film is better than the book. The 1985 book has several long info dump sections that interrupt the fictive dream for me. In particular the long seven years Grenouille spends in a self-imposed exile on a mountain in the Central Massif, contained unbelievable survival aspects of his life as well as narrative intrusions that don’t work. The film cuts all that out.
Perfume is a magic realism tale with Grenouille being born with no body odour but with an amazing sense of smell with which he is able to discern people’s activities through house walls, and create new perfumes he knows will send noses screaming for more. The book is able to convey the concept of fragrances through word images but also by using every thesaurus nuance of odour, fragrance, whiff, scent, perfume… But the film cannot do that except with the occasional voice over. Instead the film zooms in on noses, lifted subtly into the air; musical chords wafting ephemerally, suggested ripples in the scenery… and moments of suspension, cleverly done.
Although the main character, played superbly by Ben Whishaw, is exactly as I thought of him in the book, there are written scenes the film loses. For example when the Baldini perfumery collapses on the bridge over the River Seine in Paris, the book marvellously conveys this olfactory image / scent:
“Only one thing remained of Giuseppe Baldini (and his workshop)… a very motley odour – of musk, cinnamon, vinegar, lavender and a thousand other things – that for several weeks floated high above the Seine from Paris to Le Havre.”
The film omits one of Grenouille’s aims in his later (though still young) life: to create the scent of humans so as to imbue it on himself. (He does create the scent of beauty from the serial killing of attractive women as in the book) It amused me no end in the book how “Children smelled insipid, men ruinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive … is how humans smelt…” and to recreate this he found the formula needed:
“cat turd, vinegar, salt, sardine, rotten egg, castoreum, ammonia, horn shavings, nutmeg, singed pork rind, civet,. Added to this base was peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus, floral oils… “ I loved all that but it is completely cut from the film.
Spoiler: The book has a wonderful episode near the end where having been convicted of the killings, Grenouille, in front of the towns people averts his execution by wafting his newly made perfect perfume. The film shows the diffusion of the scent rippling through the crowd, who’d come to glory in the gory death, but who transforms first to being in an infatuated supplicating awe of Grenouille and then to have a mass orgy! The film, of course, includes that scene although it is quite hilarious to witness the mass copulation by otherwise genteel people.
I’m glad I read the book first. I’m also pleased to say that the film removes what I disliked in the book and Tom Tykwer is to be congratulated on this arty fabulous piece of memorable fantasy.