Tykwer's 'Perfume' smells of trying to please a built-in cult audience
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Das Parfum is so steeped in cult coolness that Kurt Cobain paid tribute to it in one of his songs, "Scentless Apprentice." And thus, adapting such a novel to the big screen is perhaps more perilous than adapting a major bestseller like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code. With those films, one has an audience of millions to please. But millions are easily interchangeable. With cult novels, the audience is much smaller, much more passionate and not at all easily impressed.
Director Tom Tykwer knows about cult audiences. His film Run Lola Run (1999) earned him a devoted following based on its speed, soul and precision juggling act. He has not yet duplicated that film's success, nor has he tried; his other films--Winter Sleepers, The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven--have taken a different route, dabbling in baffling slowness and impenetrable mystery. Though he could have done something full of ironic dazzle, something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Fight Club, Tykwer has chosen not to make a cult film per se with Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Rather, he attempts to revel in the story's themes, settled beneath the murder and gore, of love and beauty.
Ben Whishaw, who looks like a magazine model, complete with a cool 2006 haircut, stars as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born in the mid-18th century, Jean-Baptiste is blessed with an extraordinary sense of smell. After a fatal encounter with a beautiful girl (Karoline Herfurth) in a Paris marketplace, he vows to discover a way to preserve smell. He subsequently becomes an apprentice to a burned-out perfume maker (Dustin Hoffman). With his newfound skills and knowledge, he attempts to create the ultimate perfume using the odors of beautiful women, each of whom he must kill. The crown jewel for his concoction belongs to Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood), whose father (Alan Rickman) happens to be hot on the trail of the serial killer.
In attempting to depict visually and aurally this sense of smell, Tykwer spends a great deal of time with lengthy mood shots; when Jean-Baptiste approaches the market girl, he takes several moments to lurk out of the shadows, sniffing her gently and from a distance before she even notices him. But the sum total of these moments comes out to an exhaustingly long movie that never really justifies its length.
However, Perfume has great moments of beauty and of audacity, notably in the big unveiling sequence as a crowd sniffs Jean-Baptiste's magical potion and succumbs to the thralls of passion. Over the course of this long Woodstock-like sequence, Tykwer's camera registers wonder, awe, disgust, scorn and wonder again.
It's a curious, remarkable scene, and it's admirable that Tykwer wishes viewers to read the scene in their own way. But on the other hand, perhaps the director should take a more active approach, make a decision and stick with it. If Tykwer had shown how he, personally, identified with this material, the cult audience might have joined him for the ride.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (R; 148 min.), directed by Tom Tykwer, written by Tykwer, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger, based on the book by Patrick Süskind, photographed by Frank Griebe and starring Ben Whishaw, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, plays at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.
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