Dir: Tom Tykwer. Ger-Fr-Sp. 2006. 140mins.
Tom Tykwer pulls out allthe stops with his sumptuous English-language adaptation of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume,making for a daring and imposing achievement that is likely to leave audiencesstunned and somewhat exhausted rather than truly dazzled.
With its dark tone, wilfullymorbid subject matter and antipathetic protagonist, it is unlikely to recapturethe commercial success of the source novel, which has sold 15m copies worldwide(4m in Germany) since publication in 1985.
Despite extravagantproduction design, occasional show-stopping sequences and a flair for grislyhistorical flavour a la Terry Gilliam, Perfumenever quite feels like the distinctively authored piece that it might havebeen, and is often too caught up in detailed historical scene-setting to catchthe eccentric and ironic magic-realist flavour of Suskind'sphilosophical fable. Critical response is likely to regard it as a prestigehit, admired rather than much liked.
In German-language territories- Perfume opens on 800 prints inGermany and Switzerland from Sept 14, a week after its Sept 7 world premiere -returns will be very strong. Expect good, if lesser, box-office for thisEuropean co-production in those other parts of the continent - it reachesFrance on Oct 4, Spain on Nov 24 and the UK on Dec 8 - which welcomed similarliterary adaptations like The Name Of The Rose (also produced by Constantin).
In the US - where theR-rated Perfume enjoys limitedrelease through Paramount from Dec 27 - it is likely to figure more in awardsconsideration for its production credits than at the box office, in part due toits distinctly European brand of refined perversity.
Set in 18th-century France,the film - narrated dryly by John Hurt - tells of Jean-BaptisteGrenouille (Whishaw), borninto squalor in a gruesomely malodorous fish market, and raised as a solitaryoutsider in an orphanage, where he discovers he is gifted (or cursed) with anabnormally acute sense of smell.
As a young man, he comesunder the tutelage of Baldini (Hoffman), a once-greatperfumer, whom he dazzles by his ability to knock up exquisite scents with theinstinctive panache of a cocktail mixer. But Baldini'spatronage is not enough for the obsessive dreams of Grenouille,who is intent on capturing definitively the smell of everything and anything -from metal to dead cats to (eventually) people.
Grenouille heads south to Grasse in Provence, where he starts murdering young women with an aimto distilling the perfect scent. His ultimate victim seems fated to be thegorgeous, tres fragrant Laura (Hurd-Wood),daughter of merchant Richis (Rickman).
Grenouille finally looks set to face justice, but it's thenthat he uncorks his final perfume with sexually spectacular results, cappingthe film in an audacious tableau that is likely to stand as the film's greatclaim to posterity.
Tykwer, once enfant terrible of new German cinema,comfortably settles into his new role as a confident orchestratorof elaborate spectacle. Fans of Run Lola Run will be surprised to see how much Perfume at times resembles a traditionalstately costume drama, complete with an often lethargic pace that stretches itsrunning time excessively (Suskind's tightly-narratedfable runs to around 260 pages in its Penguin edition).
The film makes most of animpression in the Paris-set first hour, particularly with a sequence on Grenouille's birth that briskly and unnervingly establishesthe sheer squalor of the 18th-century city.
Things slow down for thespell in Baldini's shop, where the interior scenesfeel theatrical rather than cinematic, and where the narrative holds back tomake space for Dustin Hoffman's extravagant performance. Powdered and wigged toresemble Mr Punch, Hoffman plays Baldini forgrotesque comedy, with a distracting Italo-Brooklynaccent, and his camp flamboyance rather overpowers the film. Yet when he dropsout of the picture - about an hour in through a magnificent CG sight gag - Perfume suddenly feels a lot less fun.
Tykwer does not quite work out how best to use Ben Whishaw, whose saturnine, punkydemeanour is certainly unsettling, but who is never quite the centre ofproceedings. One of the problems is how to dramatise a character who is 100%obsession and whose being revolves entirely around the olfactory (and who,what's more, barely speaks). As the murder theme takes over in the second half,so Grenouille becomes a period precursor of themodern movie line of fetishistic serial killers,rather than the elemental figure he appears in Suskind'smagic-realist novel.
To give the film the ironic,fable-like tone it requires, Hurt's elegantly laconicnarration - as in Lars Von Trier's Manderlay and Dogville - iscalled on to do a little more work than it ideally might have.
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From the novel by Patrick Suskind