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The International Writers Magazine: Film Review

Perfume: A Story Of A Murderer
Director: Tom Tykwer
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Ben Wishaw
Aby Davis

The opening sequence of Perfume: A Story Of A Murderer stinks. I mean, it almost literally smells. Which is probably the affect director Tom Tykwer was after. The Bafta award winning director of the extraordinary Run Lola Run, and recent Paris Je t’aime certainly had his work cut out. The book of the same name by Patrick Susskind was claimed to be the ‘unfilmable book’ by Stanley Kubrick, and any fan of the novel will certainly see why.

It’s about smells. Well, a boy who likes smells. Let’s rephrase that, it’s about a haunting young man without his own scent who kills to possess the odours belonging to others. In essence, Perfume is about B.O.
Jean Baptiste Grenouille slops into being in the opening scene. His mother runs a fish stall in a busy market in 18th century France. She gives birth to him under a table, pushing her supposed stillborn aside with the fish heads. She has a dirty face and greasy hair, and the market is brought alive with a multitude of dirty colours and rich sounds. Feet squelch, paper rustles, fish slop, women breath and the viewer is left in no doubt of the reason why the tiny baby begins to sniff with his little nose.

Lacking in affection, the young Jean-Baptiste retreats into the fleeting realm of scent, and develops an unhealthy obsession in the purest smell of all.....that of a beautiful young girl. The film follows his obsession through to the gruesome end, constantly reminding us that we should be smelling, as well as seeing. There is so much sniffing in this film, I’m surprised no one gets a nose bleed.

Readers of the book will know more about Jean-Baptistes' world of smell than the viewer ever could. His first love, simply known as the ‘Plum Girl’ is describes as smelling of ‘lilies and seawater’. No one tells the film fans this; instead she is painted in a rich warm light, her red hair curling on marble white shoulders. We know she smells good from the way Jean-Baptiste is lured from a perfume shop to follow her, and that when she cuts into bright yellow plums the juice runs over her fingers. The other girls on Grenouille’s hit list are pretty; they wear nice dresses and have clean hair. Even the prostitute scrubs up nicely. Historically, there is little chance they smelt as nice as they looked. It was only till the end of the 19th century when hygiene became a priority and germs were discovered .Louis XVI was notoriously fond of bath dodging; it is likely that his people followed his example. If I were Jean-Baptiste, I wouldn’t be sniffing pretty girls’ armpits with quite as much zeal.

The film however, is beautifully shot .Tykwer almost makes it a study into the weird phenomenon of synaesthesia. He certainly sells smells better than any fashionable perfume advert. Big names Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman bring some stardust to the screen. Rickman plays his part well enough, but his character as the paranoid dad is so predictable, you almost don’t care when Grenouille has his weird way with his daughter. Hoffman is brilliant as Grenouilles boss, suitably baffled when his young protégée tries to make ‘Eau Du Chat’, and charmingly oblivious to anything but his own career. Nonetheless it is Ben Wishaw who steals the show. A suitably unnerving lead man,his Jean-Baptise carries out his macabre work with the intensity and devotion of a skilled artist.

Far fetched as it is, and bordering on historical and fantastical, Tykwer has somehow managed to make it work as a film. Obviously, die hard fans of the book will find fault in the screen version; some scenes have been cut out for time restrictions. But the film stands as proof that Kubrick may have been wrong, and for once, it is a compliment to the film making to say it stinks.

© Aby Davis
Aby studies Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth



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