Turning Patrick Süskind's legendary murder mystery "Perfume" into a movie, the German director Tom Tykwer faced an obvious problem: The story concerns the sense of smell, which the film medium (efforts by John Waters and Les Blank aside) cannot convey. Well, let's call that Problem No. 1. There was also the fact that the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (played in the film by English actor Ben Whishaw), is a sort of wild child from the slums of Paris, gifted with the finest nose of his time, who begins murdering beautiful young women in order to distill and bottle their essence.
Then there's Süskind's supremely literary voice, which captures both Grenouille's subjective consciousness -- his longing for love, acceptance and recognition as the greatest artist in his genre -- and enough outer, objective reality to remind us that he is committing unforgivable crimes. Given all that, I suppose it's a credit to Tykwer (best known for "Run Lola Run") that his "Perfume" works as well as it does. It's an extraordinary visual experience that captures 18th-century France as a realm of filth, blood, vomit, cruelty and all-around depravity, which even the best perfumers can only partly cover up.
"In bringing this book to the screen, I felt I had to make something where the usual rules of watching a film do not apply," Tykwer tells me in a phone interview. "It was very exciting." What he means, he continues, is that "there's a hero in the film who's probably the darkest hero ever. But there's nobody else to relate to, don't forget that! In 'Silence of the Lambs,' we see Hannibal Lecter through the Jodie Foster character; she's the hero. But we have a character who is both good and bad, who is Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster in one."
Many viewers, I suspect, will have trouble with this. Tykwer tries to take us inside Grenouille through voice-over narration, and by showing us key scenes from his nightmarish childhood -- his mother is executed for abandoning him, and he is nearly murdered in the cradle himself. But the operative word here is "nightmare." We can certainly be convinced to root for Grenouille as he tries to transcend his grotesque circumstances, in the manner of a Dickens hero. But as I said to Tykwer, it's as if we watched Pip of "Great Expectations" grow up into a strapping lad and start pickling hookers: Your sympathy wears thin pretty fast.
With the help of Whishaw's extraordinary performance, and a heavily allegorical climax that is so extraordinary and, if you haven't read the book, so unexpected, Tykwer nearly pulls it off. "What I hope," he says, "is that you keep rooting for Jean-Baptiste in a way that is very disturbing. It's a very strange experience, both for the audience and the filmmaker. You get involved, I think, with his vindictive and obsessive pursuit of his own happiness. This guy longs for something so basic, and his plan is so fascinating, that you can almost accept the fact that he commits these murders in order to fulfill it."
A lean, vulpine figure with something of the strangeness of David Bowie's alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," Whishaw makes a compelling visual focus for Frank Griebe's camera. The rest of the cast is hit-and-miss -- Alan Rickman brings tremendous dignity to his role as Grenouille's chief pursuer, but let's not talk about Dustin Hoffman trying to play a once-famous Italian perfumer. Who thought that was a good idea?
Tykwer is one of contemporary cinema's great perfectionists, and his re-creation of 18th-century Paris, along with Grasse, the famous "perfume capital" of Provence, is nothing short of amazing. (The film was mostly shot in Barcelona and nearby regions of Spain, with interiors in a Munich studio.) But if "Perfume" is a beautiful film, it has a cold heart, pumping aesthetic perversity icily through its veins.
Are audiences at any level of the film marketplace likely to embrace a film whose protagonist kills young women, one after the other? I suppose "Perfume" is really an allegory about artistic creation and its costs -- something underscored by that climax I'm not giving away, the one with 800 naked extras writhing in the town square -- but it's not like that's such a crowd-pleasing topic either. A memorable and outrageous movie, but one more likely to be remembered as a massive folly than a whopping success.
"Perfume" opens Dec. 27 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release beginning Jan. 5.