The Perfume – the movie – was, at its very core, ambitious, this for many reasons. Most obviously, it is extraordinarily difficult to transpose the olfactory sense, which is at the very centre of Süskind’s novel, onto a media that is mostly graphical. Secondly, the book itself is a masterpiece and has some wonderful descriptions, which, again, inevitably would fail to be rendered on a screen. Also, the leading part (almost the only part) is that of a twisted soul, but one which has charisma and appeal: casting had to be really fitting for this role. So – quite a challenge!
It would have been easy to focus on how obsession drives Jean-Baptiste crazy- though that would have departed slightly from the book. Too easy, probably – and studies about obsession-driven people are abundant in nowadays’ cinema (The Prestige is an exampe of them, and a very good one); so this path was not chosen. Being factual is, also, not an option- because the olfactory sense is the most subjective of our senses. The film is avoiding all these clichés and focus on one (maybe the main) aspect of the book – that, ultimately, Jean-Baptiste is some sort of Devil. Which is more obvious when you think of it – hints are plotting the whole book and film, for instance Jean-Baptste’s last name, Grenouille (frog, a creature associated with the Devil as far as I can remember). Whilst this becomes progressively obvious in the book, the same is not true of the movie – and one can easily mistake such references for random elements of the script: the word weird came quite a lot when I discussed about some scenes with friends. But – think about it – the deaths that occur to Jean-Baptiste’s carers right after he leaves (malediction element), deception, crime/murder, obsession with perfection – somehow trying to better God – and, more interestingly, the orgy scene towards the end of the film – symbolising lust. Now, this scene – which is gratuitous if you don’t have the Devil interpretation in mind – is quite controversial. It leads to quite a lot of giggling from the audience, but still is pivotal for the whole film: this is the culmination of Grenouille as the Devil, with him finally deceiving everyone into lust; but also entailing the central notion of Redemption : the first tears in Jean-Baptiste’s eyes, and the acceptance of death through the arms of the father as final redemptory act. Every symbol is there, even the cross. Now, as far as I recall, there is no orgy in the book, so this scene was added. And it is a stroke of genius. For once, story alterations actually add depth to a story, instead of, say, just adding a plotline (as the Aragorn/Arwen relationship in The Lord of The Rings). The very last scene keeps on adding some depth to the fallen angel ongoing theme: as the voiceover says, all that mattered was for Jean-Baptiste to be loved.
So the adaptation is, overall, genius. There are, however, still some defaults: the story being, ultimately, centred on Jean-Baptiste, so much time should not be spent on showing that the perfumer’s business was derelict, no matter how famous the actor is. Why do producers feel they have to use famous actors? Cameo is perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned! Also, one may say that, because of this focus on the Devil side of things, the story becomes very linear, and lacks transversal dimension. Which is true, but it somehow works in this particular film! Graphically, it is superb, except from the first couple of scenes: in order to show the olfactory sense at work, the director flashes evocative pictures. Quite fortunately, he quite rapidly gives up on that – fortunately, because the movie is about smells, which you, intrinsically, cannot show. The help comes from the amazing performance of the lead actor. He manages to pull off a tormented, yet disgusting and touching performance, as well as makes us see him smell. Suspension of disbelief is really easy (well, until the orgy scene) and that is moainly thanks to him. From the orgy scene onwards, he switches to allegory mode, which – again – works perfectly well!
But the film is not all good: there are a few minor issues. The voiceover is the one that I have most difficulties with: it is clearly a wrong choice when all you’re doing is following Jean-Baptiste around. It is, really, a lazy choice. But it gets worse: it would have been fine to have some voiceover; however, to have it speak like someone telling a children’s tale just doesn’t work. Because the story is so adult, and the tale mode does not work when you’re talking about the Devil. The other thing i hold against the Perfume is the music. Except for the one bit before Jean-Baptiste’s final murder (which is, by all my standards, brilliant), the music is unoriginal at best.
But this is all I can find to say against the film. Did it achieve what it had set out to do? Only partially – it fails to show as clearly as the book that Jean-Baptiste is an incarnation of the Devil, which makes it a failure for, say, half the audience- I personally did not like it that much the first time I saw it! So to all of you my dear readers, this film deserves a strong four. Go watch it again, or buy the DVD, because it is worth it!