A faint whiff of menace
It took 20 years to bring Perfume to the cinema screen. Bob Flynn finds out why
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