A faint whiff of men­ace

It took 20 years to bring Per­fume to the cin­ema screen. Bob Flynn finds out why

The Herald - Arts - - Cinema -

Since its f irst pub­li­ca­tion in Ger­many 21 years ago, Pa­trick Suskind’s novel, Per­fume: The Story of aMur­derer, has at­tracted bid­ding for the film rights. Martin Scors­ese, Ri­d­ley Scott, Mi­los Fore­man, Tim Bur­ton and Stan­ley Kubrick all beat a path to the reclu­sive Mu­nich-based au­thor’s door, ea­ger to cap­ture the elu­sive essence of Per­fume on screen. Suskind stead­fastly re­fused even to con­sider a stream of lu­cra­tive of­fers.

His tale of the mur­der­ous Parisian per­fumer Jean-Bap­tis­teGre­nouille in pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary France has sold over 15 mil­lion copies world­wide and has be­come the most suc­cess­ful Ger­man novel since Erich Maria Re­mar­que’s Al­lQuiet on the West­ern Front.

Now Per­fume fi­nally wafts onto our screens, di­rected by Tom Tyk­wer, the 46year-old writer-di­rec­tor whose fre­netic thriller, Run Lo­laRun, rekin­dled Ger­man cin­ema in 1998. Star­ring Dustin Hoff­man, Alan Rick­man and 26-year-old new­comer Ben Whishaw, who plays the story’s mis­an­thropic an­ti­hero, the film opens with Jean-Baptiste Gre­nouille on the scaf­fold, then flashes back to his birth in 1738 amongst the sul­phurous scraps of a Parisian fish mar­ket. Gre­nouille grows up with no per­sonal odour, yet pos­sesses a preter­nat­u­rally acute sense of smell and be­comes ob­sessed with cre­at­ing the per­fect per­fume. His se­cret and ter­ri­ble in­gre­di­ent is the dis­tilled essence of vir­ginal young women, the fi­nal grace note, or es­sen­tial oil, for the ul­ti­mate, mood-al­ter­ing scent.

With a bud­get of around £33m, Per­fume is the most ex­pen­sive Ger­man film ever made, be­wigged and cos­tumed to the hilt. But how did Tyk­wer suc­ceed where ev­ery­one from Scors­ese to Scott failed?

“We made Suskind an of­fer he couldn’t refuse,” smiles Tyk­wer. “I have to give the credit to the pro­ducer, Bernd Eichinger, who has been ob­sessed with the book since it was pub­lished. He is a friend of Suskind’s and he had a nose, let’s say, to know when there was some readi­ness on Suskind’s part, af­ter all th­ese years.” Born in 1949 in Am­bach, near Mu­nich, Suskind, a for­mer stu­dent of me­dieval his­tory at Mu­nich Univer­sity, wrote sev­eral books and plays in the 1970s. But fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Per­fume he be­came Ger­many’s JD Salinger, a lit­er­ary her­mit who shunned all pub­lic­ity.

“Suskind re­sisted even dis­cussing it for 15 years,” sighs Tyk­wer, “My sus­pi­cion is that he just got more re­laxed about the whole idea of the film and curious about what it might look like.”

Eichinger, Ger­many’s pre-em­i­nent pro­ducer whose cred­its in­clude The Name of The Rose and last year’s Hitler biopic, Down­fall, re­port­edly paid Suskind around £6.7m for the rights.

Best­sellers, how­ever, do not guar­an­tee great cin­ema, as The Da Vinci Code proved. How­ever, Tyk­wer, who co-wrote Per­fume’s script with Eichinger and Andrew Birkin and com­posed the film’s mu­sic, cap­tures the grime of the Parisian streets with a lus­cious panache.

Suskind had no in­put into the pro­duc­tion.“He is ab­so­lutely not a pub­lic per­son,” says Tyk­wer. “I got the feel­ing that for him it was a re­lief, that fi­nally here was some­body who was go­ing to do this and he wanted to just get it over with.”

Pre­vi­ously, only Stan­ley Kubrick (who died in 1999) came close to per­suad­ing Suskind to part with his beloved novel. But the equally reclu­sive di­rec­tor re­put­edly de­clared it un­filmable, and you can see why. Per­fume’s anti-hero Gre­nouille re­mains more or less silent through­out and the story hinges on the in­tri­ca­cies of per­fume-mak­ing.

Tyk­wer ad­mits Per­fume was a daunt­ing prospect. Suskind’s take on the 18th­cen­tury world, far re­moved from the usual pe­riod dra­mas set amongst the rustling pet­ti­coats and cas­tles of aristo- cratic life, threw the reader into the open sew­ers and reek­ing streets of Paris.

“This is about life as a night­mare, in terms of filth and dirt and hor­ror,” says Tyk­wer. “It makes it clear why there was a cat­a­strophic revo­lu­tion at the end of that cen­tury. Life for the lower classes was so bad that some­thing had to hap­pen. I love that pre-apoca­lyp­tic feel, that the world is about to change fun­da­men­tally. Then this strange boy is born into it. It was all so un­known and so spe­cial.” Thedi­rec­tor took­more than a year tofind his lead in the scrawny shape of Ben Whishaw, a 26-year-old English theatre ac­tor he caught by chance in a pro­duc­tion of Ham­let at Lon­don’s Old Vic. “When I saw Ben Whishaw I knew within five min­utes that he was Gre­nouille. He had this am­biva­lence which is both naïve and scary, a per­fect mix of in­no­cence and dark­ness.”

Dustin Hoff­man, how­ever, steals al­most ev­ery scene f rom un­der Whishaw’s nose as Giuseppe Bal­dini, the aged Ital­ian per­fumer and un­sus­pect­ing tu­tor of the gifted Gre­nouille.

“As soon as I heard from Tom that he was adapt­ing Per­fume I wanted to get in­volved,” says Hoff­man. “I read the book 20 years ago and I’ve wanted to work with Tom since Run Lola Run. I’ve al­ways thought the process of mak­ing per­fume is like film­mak­ing. It has a kind of magic. And I iden­ti­fied with Bal­dini, who ‘steals’ his con­tem­po­raries’ scents to make his own per­fume. I’ve been a thief allmy life, be­cause art is also a kind of theft.”

Iron­i­cally, get­ting Hoff­man on board, says Tyk­wer, was rel­a­tively easy. “I think he is the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can film ac­tor and we were friends al­ready. I re­mem­ber he first called me in the mid­dle of the night af­ter he had seen Run Lola Run in Amer­ica. I was flab­ber­gasted, but that’s what he does; he’s full of en­thu­si­asm and he calls direc­tors all the time.”

Ul­ti­mately it is the deadly per­fumer Gre­nouille who some­how at­tracts our sym­pa­thy – a lonely boy who craves beauty and hu­man con­tact but has to kill to get it. Even the book’s au­da­cious and har­row­ing de­noue­ment is rev­er­en­tially re­peated on screen.

“It’s not a se­rial-killer story in the clas­sic sense at all,” says Tyk­wer. “Gre­nouille is more an artist than a mur­derer, driven by a deep long­ing for recog­ni­tion and love. We all want to be loved. In th­ese times of celebrity and plas­tic surgery, he is very con­tem­po­rary. It’s about the ut­ter lone­li­ness of the hu­man be­ing.” Per­fume opens on Box­ing Day

NOT TO BE SNIFFED AT: Ben Whishaw breathes life into Jean-Baptiste Gre­nouille in the big-screen adap­ta­tion of Per­fume

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