A Scent of Wonder:
A Review of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Gary Westfahl
special to Locus Online
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Screenplay by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, and Tom Tykwer
Starring Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, and Rachel Hurd-Wood
Warning: spoilers herein, for those unfamiliar with the book
Any review of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer posted on a science fiction website must begin by confronting the obvious question: is this actually a science fiction or fantasy film? Though the Patrick Süskind novel on which it is based won the 1987 World Fantasy Award, neither it nor the movie itself has ever been promoted as science fiction or fantasy, and the usually reliable Internet Movie Database places the film only in the categories of "Crime," "Drama," and "Thriller." The three films previewed at the showing I attended Zodiac, Shooter, and The Number 23 would additionally suggest that this is strictly a film for people who like thrilling action movies.
Nevertheless, one can readily describe the premise of Süskind’s story in terms which would make it seem like science fiction: suppose a man was born with an extraordinary sense of smell, one so powerful that he came to perceive the world primarily in terms of its odors, not its sights and sounds, and resolved to devote his life to pursuing and preserving the world’s most desirable smells. Further suppose that he discovers he is not as different from others as one might think: more so than they know, he learns, people are strongly influenced by the things that they smell, so that this man can employ his unusual skills to develop an astoundingly appealing perfume which is literally capable of entirely changing the way people think and behave. In the context on ongoing research into the posited effects of pheromones on human beings, these do sound like intriguing ideas for a science fiction story, and if one had mentioned such possibilities to, say, the great H.G. Wells (who so effectively attracted women, by some reports, because of his pleasant odor), he might have written a intriguing tale of a faraway society where citizens’ lives are entirely dominated by their highly developed senses of smell.
However, science fiction can also be regarded as a matter of the settings you choose, the conventions you follow, and the questions you address, and by those standards Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is only what it appears to be, an historical drama. Since the story is set in eighteenth-century France, we know from the start that its singular hero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), described by narrator John Hurt as a man forgotten by history, is not going to be the progenitor of a new, olfactory human species, and his uniquely potent perfumes will not be preserved and replicated so as to permanently transform human society. Thus, while the novel in particular does convey an intriguing impression of what life would be like for a person primarily depending upon his sense of smell, the story is not otherwise developed in the manner of science fiction, and its departure from reality is presented as a transitory one-time miracle, not as an enduring paradigm shift.
Still, there is no evidence that Süskind ever wanted to write a science fiction novel, and one should never condemn authors for failing to do what they did not intend to do. Furthermore, however one categorizes it, Süskind’s novel definitely qualifies as a strange and stunning narrative after the movie, I overheard one member of the audience describing it as "the weirdest book you will ever read" which is surely why several noted directors were tempted to make it into a film. But the most distinguished of these, the late Stanley Kubrick, famously concluded that the novel was "unfilmable." One cannot be sure what he meant by that, but he was probably referring to one obvious problem: how does one employ a visual medium to convey a story about odors? Perhaps one or more of the directors pondering this project considered a revival of the "Smell-o-Vision" used for the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, a system for releasing certain scents from theatre seats at key moments, but wisely recognized that it would be impossible for any worldly odors to duplicate the overpoweringly exquisite perfumes created by Grenouille. In the first part of the film, director Tom Tykwer tries some visual devices to suggest smells: there are numerous close-ups of sniffing noses, and when perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) first inhales one of Grenouille's perfumes, we suddenly see in the background arrays of colorful flowers, followed by a beautiful woman who approaches Baldini and says "I love you" pictorial representations of the ecstasy generated by the scent. Later on, however, there are no further efforts of this sort, as Tykwer and co-screenwriters Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger, like novelist Süskind, are content to rely entirely upon words to convey the essence of the story’s exotic odors.
Knowing Kubrick, though, one could also, and uncharitably, suppose that by "unfilmable" he meant "incapable of being warped by an egomaniac director into an idiosyncratic personal vision." Indeed, while Süskind’s novel arguably is illogical and unsatisfactory in several respects, any reasonable filmmaker would hesitate to begin making whimsical changes in his unique narrative, for fear of totally destroying a delicately constructed mechanism. This is undoubtedly why Tykwer, Birkin, and Eichinger made what was both a bold and a safe decision: to film the story precisely the way Süskind wrote it. Virtually everything in the novel and the film is the same: Grenouille’s birth in a fish market; his sojourn in an orphanage; his apprenticeship to a brutal tanner; his subsequent work as an assistant to has-been perfumer Baldini; a blissful interlude in the countryside inside a cave almost without scents; his employment in the city of Grasse, famous for its fine perfumes, where he begins murdering young girls to achieve the perfect perfume; his arrest and planned execution, thwarted by the miraculous power of that scent; and his final death due to his deliberate overuse of the same perfume. Indeed, I cannot recall another film adaptation that has followed its source material so faithfully, even religiously; in fact, one could easily write a plausible review of the film based entirely on a reading of the novel. (Unfortunately, not being smart enough to pull off such chicanery, I dutifully plunged into Los Angeles’s rush-hour traffic in order to pay eleven dollars to see the movie at the one theatre where it was playing.)
Other than trivial matters, there is only one significance difference between the film and the novel: in the film, it is only briefly mentioned, halfway through the story, that Grenouille himself does not have any smell of his own, but nothing else is said about the phenomenon. In contrast, the novel emphasizes from the start that, even as a baby, Grenouille never had any smell, and it explains that this is why women and other children tend to intensely dislike him. Thus, his determination to create a perfect perfume can be interpreted as his effort to artificially replicate the appealing human odor that he was not born with, and his willingness to slaughter young virgins in order to achieve that scent can be regarded, among other things, as an expression of anger toward a society that has consistently rejected him for no good reason. None of this serves, of course, to justify his serial murders, but it does make the novel’s Grenouille somewhat more understandable than the film’s Grenouille, whose motives are less lucidly conveyed.
Based solely on the film, then, what explanation might one seize upon for Grenouille's evolution into a violent sociopath? The orphans who attempt to smother the infant Grenouille do say that there is "something different about him," but the difference, apparently, is only that he likes to smell things. Since he is often photographed in deep shadows, barely visible to the audience, the film at times seems to portray him as a thoroughly evil person, which is definitely one way to account for his behavior. Yet there is also the trite suggestion that the poor man is just too shy: confronted by the woman who will become his first victim, Grenouille is apparently unable to say a word; later, recalling the encounter while surrounded by an adoring crowd overcome by his perfume, he imagines the incident differently, as the encounter leads to a passionate kiss. If only he had been able to talk to the girl whose scent had attracted him, the scene suggests, he might have launched a romantic relationship and refrained from murdering her, so that everything else about his life would have been different. All in all, I think, Süskind’s novel succeeds by portraying Grenouille essentially as an alien being (though Süskind would not have used that term), difficult to judge by strictly human standards; the film’s uncertainties regarding the proper way to judge him reflect a possibly inevitable tendency in popular filmmaking to make one’s protagonist either more of a conventional villain or more of a conventional hero.
One other change worth mentioning is that while the novel unfolds entirely in chronological order, the film begins on the morning of Grenouille's scheduled execution, with the prisoner in chains while an angry mob waits outside, and his story is then mostly told as an extended flashback. Perhaps this opening is intended to reassure moralistic filmgoers that the central antihero will, in the end, be properly punished for his crimes, despite the apparent ease with which he usually avoids detection. (The irony, of course, is that Grenouille ultimately does contrive to avoid official punishment, although he subsequently punishes himself.)
Finally, while the aged perfumer Baldini is basically the same in the novel and in the film, the fact that he is portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film inevitably alters our perception of the character. First, while some filmgoers might recall the actress playing Grenouille’s final victim Laura, Rachel Hurd-Wood, from her role in Peter Pan (2003), and they might recall the actor playing her father Antoine, Alan Rickman, from roles in various films, every other performer in the movie will surely be unfamiliar, so that the sudden appearance of an American film icon is a disturbing surprise. Further, one quickly realizes that this awesome talent is being badly misused: as suggested by his deliberately inept makeup, Baldini is a transparent fraud, pretending that he is still an innovative perfumer while conspicuously failing to conceal that he is really washed up, forced to rely on copying the products of competitors and, later, on exploiting the work of his brilliant new assistant Grenouille, in order to stay in business; and one hardly needs someone with Hoffman’s skills to play a bad actor. When one should be focusing on the story, then, distracting questions keep coming to mind: was it really essential to include one recognizable performer of Hoffman’s stature in order to get the project green-lighted? Is Hoffman really so desperate for money, or for work, as to accept roles that are clearly beneath his abilities? Even worse, when this not particularly admirable character is killed off, the audience feels a disproportionate sense of loss for, even trapped in an unworthy part, Hoffman remains an actor who is capable of stunning moments, so that one always hates to see him go. Overall, as much as I admire Hoffman, I believe the film would have been better with an unknown actor playing Baldini.
Despite these issues, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer generally deserves to be praised as a handsome, accurate adaptation of a bizarre and fascinating novel, a story that everyone should experience at least once. So, if you have never read Süskind’s novel, you should definitely see this film; while if you have read the novel, you do not have to see the film, but you might enjoy revisiting its peculiar narrative in a different format. True, this unsettling film may never appeal to typical audiences who, to judge by the reviews I have finally allowed myself to read, may prefer the unchallenging simplicity of something like Children of Men. Still, although science fiction can be defined in a variety of ways, if it all boils down, in Harlan Ellison’s words, to the presentation of "dangerous visions,” then this is a definitely a story that science fiction readers and filmgoers should wholeheartedly embrace.
Gary Westfahl's recent projects include Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy; samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His next book, Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, is scheduled to appear in 2007.