27 February 2009

Movielog, Perfume

Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, 2006
Written by Andrew Birkin & Bernd Eichinger & Tom Tykwer
Based on the novel by Patrick Suskind
Directed by Tom Tykwer
147 minutes

This movie makes me really worried about the Watchmen adaptation due out in a couple of weeks. Why? Because right now the trailer for Watchmen make it look like the people in charge of the project have kept the vast majority of the story intact, focused on all the amazing details of the worldbuilding, and have in general loved the graphic novel as much as I have.

And watching Perfume, I realized that it keeps the vast majority of the story of Patrick Suskind's novel intact, focuses on the amazing details of the historical world in which the novel takes place, and the makers clearly loved the novel at least as much I did. And they made a portentious, dull movie that completely misses the aspect of the book that I thought was most important.

It's been a couple of years since I read the book, but the impression that I got most clearly from it was a sort of total, almost gleeful, misanthropy. Nearly every character in Perfume is evil, short-sighted, stupid, shallow, or some combination of the above. The handful of characters that cannot be described as such generally get completely undeserved unhappy endings, and everybody's life basically sucks. Life is short, painful, smelly, and every man and woman is out for his or her own ends. This feeds into one of the most important bits of metaphor in the novel, the connection of scent with base human desires, i.e. the inability of the characters in the novel to see rationally past the tips of their noses. When the climactic final set piece occurs in the book, it's ridiculous, absurd, and completely fits in with the idea that people are basically just rutting animals -- when the same scene takes place in the book (and I do give the filmmakers credit for having the huevos to include it!) it's a romantic and amazing sequence, with the focus being more on the beauty of what is happening rather than the insanity of it all.

(I realize that in the last paragraph I have committed the sin of equating "base instincts" with "immoral behavior," and have drawn at least a fuzzy line between animal behavior and human behavior. This is purely a bit of rhetorical shorthand, for I am fully aware of the fact that human beings are animals, and that many of our most moral impulses come directly from the biochemistry of evolved behavior rather than from rarefied intellectual response. My point is that Suskind is using scent as a shorthand for selfish base impulses, which connects with the behavior shown in the book.)

That said, director Tom Tykwer is incredibly talented, and at first the film looks like it's almost a sure thing. Aside from a short pre-credits sequence showing the main character Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) in chains awaiting his execution, the opening of the film is nearly identical to that of the novel. Suskind's novel was widely considered unfilmable due to the problems portraying scent on-screen, but that is not the problem of Tykwer's version: the opening sequence captures the horrible smells of eighteenth century France remarkably well, and when we learn of Grenouille's powers of scent later on, it is through visual inspection as much as through narration. Setting the stage of this remarkable young man is an amazingly difficult feat, and if we're taking "degree of difficulty" into consideration when talking about films, Perfume is at least worth your time on that level.

No, it's on more prosaic issues that the film proves itself less than worthy of the source material. A number of minor quibbles begin to add up in the mind and create a less-than-stellar movie experience. The first is an obtrusive voiceover narration that seems more fit for a fractured fairly tale like Pushing Daisies than this kind of strange horror story. A narrator is necessary to get across some of the details of the film, and John Hurt probably isn't a bad choice, but the writing tends more towards whimsy than it should, which gives the film a rather uneven tone.

Another issue with Perfume is the amount of star-fucking that's going on. I'm sure the producers were ecstatic to get two big-name stars to portray key supporting roles in the film, but Tykwer leans on his stars a bit too heavily. Dustin Hoffman is an Italian perfumer named Baldini, and spends much of his short role being the kind of bumbling fool that Hoffman plays so well. Hoffman isn't exactly badly-cast, for his performance is funny and affecting in the right ways, but his presence is a bit unbalancing for the film, drawing screentime and resources towards himself. Hoffman has the ability to play a bit dark and menacing, but here he unwisely plays his role completely buffoonish, even in his darkest moments a clown.

But this is a minor gripe compared with Alan Rickman's Richis, member of the French nobility whose daughter is one of Grenouille's targets. On the whole Rickman is closer to the tone required of his role than Hoffman, but his storyline is puffed up by Tykwer and the other screenwriters of Perfume until the second half of the film drags considerably. Rickman is probably the smartest character in the movie, a man who figures out in a general way what the then-unknown murderer is doing before anyone else, and his desire to keep his daughter safe from the monster is palpable, the efforts he goes to in order to secure her admirable. But the audience knows from the prologue of Perfume (actually, earlier than that, given the subtitle of the film) that Grenouille will be caught and tried for his crimes: pacing the second half of the film like a thriller is gratutious and gets in the way of the story. It's like the film begins to drag its feet just as it should be soaring. It's not that the screenwriters have added extraneous material (I believe that most of the events of the film are recounted also in the novel) so much as they have lingered on the details of Grenouille's attacks and the town's response when they could have been darting for the finish. The details of how Grenouille catches his victims are routine, while his reasons for doing so are fascinating, and the film focuses on the former when it could be examining the latter.

I've struggled a bit with the rating here. A B really doesn't summarize my feelings on the film. I'm unlikely to want to revisit it anytime soon, which would indicate a lower rating, but I realize that much of the film is really superbly done and that those who haven't read the book may be able to overlook some of the things that I could not. Tykwer and his writers have found a version of this story that is probably justified by the text, although I feel they've missed the forest for the trees a bit in terms of execution. There's a whole lot to like here, but as a fan of the novel I think it's largely a missed opportunity.

So... who's still eager for that midnight showing of Watchmen?


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