Having wandered off up arthouse avenue in recent years, with The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven, director Tom Tykwer delivers his most accessible film since Run Lola Run. It’s an adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s runaway best-seller about an 18th century peasant with an incredible olfactory talent and the trouble that that gets him into. The feted Ben Whishaw gives it plenty of Norman Wisdom/Lee Evans gaucheness in the lead, as the lad whose almost Asperger’s talent for one single thing, and a commensurate lack of social skills, drives him on a giddy flight to the dark side. And the supporting cast is notable, sumptuous even. Dustin Hoffman does an entirely inappropriate panto act as the perfumer who’s lost his spark, until Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) comes into his life, while Alan Rickman adds some theatrical bottom as the number one man on Grenouille’s tail, the father of one of his victims.
Because where Grenouille’s nose takes him is towards murder, as he tries to produce a scent that can catch the essence of truth, beauty and life itself by killing attractive young women and then macerating them in animal fat – essence de femme morte. If that sounds like a tall order and one doomed to failure, the film has a similar ambition and outcome, aiming to get Susskind’s authorial voice and Grenouille’s first person point of view onto the screen at the same time (John Hurt doing his John Hurt thing in voiceover).
Tykwer lavishes a large proportion of his decent budget getting the stink and filth of the 18th century onto the screen, and agonises over his compositions, whether they are of gorgeous women such as Rachel Hurd-Wood or Karoline Herfurth (her vivid red hair alone makes the film worth a look) or seething masses of maggots and other signifiers of decay. But no amount of set-dressing can hide the fact that the book has died on the way to the screen. Ironically the film is simply too literal, and without Süskind’s authorial voice teasing us this way and that, it’s hard to dispel the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is the Tooth Fairy strand from Silence of the Lambs rendered in the style of an upmarket continental lager advertisement. As for the blackly comic turn Tykwer takes at the end, it’s a throws-hands-in-the-air get-out for a film that looks like it had no idea how to end.
© Steve Morrissey 2006