Perfume: the Story of a Murderer, an adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel, centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a nearly catatonic wretch with an extraordinary sense of smell that enables him to master the art of perfume creation. Set in an 18th century France that, lacking modern hygiene, literally stinks and in which morality is a luxury fit only for the rich, Grenouille determines to develop the ultimate scent, and in the process becomes a grotesque, conscienceless killer.
Süskind’s story presents two related, virtually insurmountable problems for any adaptation. Grenouille’s appalling actions require a highly stylized approach if the results are to be anything other than revolting. (Think early Herzog as one model.) On the other hand, while Süskind can evoke scent through imaginative language, a filmmaker must rely on assertively present realistic imagery to suggest the olfactory. Such emphasis overwhelms any stylization and, by its very grossness, potentially alienates the viewer. All concerned deserve credit for not flinching at this daunting challenge. Nonetheless, the filmmakers’ solution to the novel’s booby-traps, to distract and immerse with as much vivid detail as money can buy, is itself highly problematic.
With its shiny, hard-edged Panavision frames carefully dirtied and prettily lit, Perfume is simply too clean as film making to provide a convincing experience of muck. (The cinematography could use a little grain.) The execrable environment is elaborately featured, and even if the details are nauseating, they are treated with the same fetishistic fussiness period films usually lavish on sets and costumes. It’s as if the money spent on the production is meant to assure the audience that despite the ugly, rancid, highly perverse material, Perfume is not an exploitation film. In a word, this is tasteful murder, necrophilia and cannibalism.
Take, for example, a sequence in the fish market in which Grenouille is born. There are disgusting shots of fish, rotting vegetables and meat, worms, sewage, rats, refuse and more, but they are presented more as proof of what the filmmakers can provide than of what the participants experience. A single, thoughtful shot, held just a few seconds, would convey the mess, but then we wouldn’t notice how much work went into creating it. Similarly, when Grenouille is about to be executed for his crimes, exciting the attending crowd into a mass orgy from a whiff of his ultimate perfume, we’re more likely to be embarrassed than imaginatively involved. The scene is all about being able to show hundreds of extras groping and grunting; it is not remotely convincing as an evocation of a powerfully heady smell.
Under-produced movies can be hurt by insufficient resources. Over–produced films however, just as often lose their edge because of the money and work that go into them. Given the material, Perfume could not have been produced inexpensively. But less money might have encouraged more thought and feeling, even at the risk of deep offense. Instead, the slickness itself offends by giving the gross a respectability measured in money.