Perfume: The Story of A Murderer (written by Patrick Süskind) has got to be one of the most unique and imaginative story ideas I’ve come across. To give a brief (and very spoilery) rundown of the plot, it’s the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan who grows up in eighteenth century Paris and has a remarkable olfactory talent. He has an unusually keen sense of smell, and can detect odours in things that normal people would believe to have no scent at all – glass, for example. However, he is also distinct as he has no natural smell of his own, and so is unable to properly integrate with people because they subconsciously have difficulty relating him due to the fact that he doesn’t smell like a human. Grenouille trains as a perfumer and, deciding he wants to be treated like a god by humanity, sets about creating the perfect scent that will help him to rule over humankind. However, the ‘perfect perfume’ in Grenouille’s eyes is one made up of the smells of thirteen virginal girls, who he has to kill before he can extract and preserve their natural scent.
So far so grisly, but it’s a really captivating and incredibly sensory novel. It’s filled with descriptions of different scents and odours as Grenouille experiences them and the ways they affect him, and how he files them away in his brain under different categories so that he quite literally has a scent library in his head that he can draw on at will. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to translate that onto film, and so we’re left with scene after scene of Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) sniffing unattractively. Focusing on shots of his nose while he sniffs is such a coarse way to portray what are really vivid descriptions of scents, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s sniffing. There’s a whiff of bad manners about it, although I’ll admit I can’t really see any other way they could have tried to portray this aspect of the book otherwise. It also means that Grenouille has to speak more in the film, so that we can really understand what scent it is he’s experiencing. He speaks very little in the book (and so has difficulty forming words when he does), but again we wouldn’t really pick up on what it was he could smell in the film if he didn’t list a variety of objects and their scents.
There are a few other differences between the film and the book. While living in a cave separated from the rest of humanity, Grenouille discovers that he has no natural scent of his own, and is alarmed. He works out that it is the fact that he has no real scent that makes people nervous of him. In the book, he leaves the cave and claims to have been kept prisoner by robbers deep underground. He is taken in by a scientist, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse who is trying to prove a theory that living so close to the ground (or underneath it in Grenouille’s case) is detrimental to the health. It is while under the Marquis’ care that Grenouille first creates a perfume for himself which aimed to give him the scent of a human, and he goes on to create a variety of human perfumes for different purposes – one which makes people accept and interact with him, one which helps him to blend into the crowd, one which makes people trust him etc. The Marquis puts Grenouille in some kind of altitude chamber and believes him to have been cured of the poison of the earth which made him look sickly, when really the effect is all due to Grenouille wearing one of his perfumes to make him accepted by society. I can see why it wasn’t included in the film because it’s a bit of a strange interlude, but it was important in the novel because it was the first time Grenouille created perfumes for himself with the aim of making people like him and treat him as a normal person.
Grenouille is a difficult character to play on screen. Ben Whishaw does his best (and anyone who’s read this blog before will know that I am a big fan of Ben Whishaw), but he’s a complex character and I’m not convinced his motivation properly comes across in the film. While reading Perfume, I could almost feel sympathy for Grenouille at times. (Almost). While I still didn’t find him a likeable character (completely fascinating, yes, but not likeable), it was a lot easier to understand exactly why he did what he did. He made his ultimate perfume because he wanted to be loved by people, treated like a god, and able to rule over humanity due to the power of his scent, but it couldn’t make him happy because he ended up hating the false nature of humankind and the way people would fawn over him when he was wearing his perfume. I didn’t really feel like this came across properly in the film. It was almost like Grenouille murdered young girls to make a perfume because he was intrigued by it and wanted power, but there should have been more to it than that. He certainly comes across as a bad omen, and everyone who’s involved with his upbringing or gives him a job ultimately meets a sticky end, but the film doesn’t really present any side to him that’s not sinister or unnerving. And he is sinister and unnerving, absolutely he is, but we’re missing those little insights in the film that could add a level of understanding.
There are also a few small discrepancies between Grenouille’s victims in the film and in the book. The film almost seemed to portray the death of the first girl, the one with the basket of yellow plums, as an accident. It was as if Grenouille was trying to stop her screaming with his hand over her mouth, and then suddenly realised she was dead. In the book, I definitely got the sense that it was deliberate, and that he killed her entirely because he wanted to possess her scent, but it disappeared because he had no means to preserve it. This was what motivated him to train as a perfumer and learn how to preserve scents, so he could set about recreating hers through the scents of other murdered virgins (who are also much younger in the book, around thirteen years old). As far as I could tell reading the book, there was absolutely nothing sexual about it. His actions were entirely scent-focused, and yet later in the film Grenouille has some kind of sex dream about the plum girl while trying to remember her scent, which puts quite a different spin on his motivation and changes his characterisation to a more perverse predator.
But if anyone’s perverse in the book, it’s actually Laure’s father; he has quite a strange relationship with his daughter, which is peppered with incestuous thoughts. He’s played by Alan Rickman on screen, and we all know that Alan can do no wrong, and I think it is quite a faithful portrayal. Despite being desperate to see his daughter’s murderer executed for his crimes, he tries but is unable to resist Grenouille’s perfume and actually tries to adopt him as his son. It’s all very strange, but quite accurate in terms of the book itself.
Now I am fans of Ben Whishaw and Alan Rickman (as were the critics generally), but I think my favourite character portrayal in the film was Dustin Hoffman playing the perfumer Baldini. He was criticised by critics for being too over the top and for exaggerating the bumbling nature of Baldini, but I liked the fact that he provided a bit of comic relief in what was essentially a rather dark film, and I don’t just mean dark in terms of its subject matter. I know the filmmakers wanted to highlight the grimy and shadowy nature of eighteenth century Paris, but at times it was so grimy and shadowy that I could barely make out what was happening on screen. It did have a nice contrasting effect with the red hair of Grenouille’s plum girl victim, and there was a rather effective shot where his face suddenly loomed out of the darkness behind her, but generally I could have done with a touch more light and a touch less shade. I know the aim was to make everything feel a bit sinister, but I think they could have achieved that while still enabling the audience to actually be able to see what was happening.
Overall, I thought the film was alright and it probably is worth a watch if only because it’s kind of intriguing, but I would definitely recommend reading the book. The film tries its best, but it just can’t deliver the levels of sensory information that fill the pages of the novel, and it really is an engrossing read. If you’d asked me before I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to base a book around smells and for it to be so readable, but it really does work and I think the sensory side of the novel would be enjoyable enough on its own without the thrill of a sinister and absolutely fascinating serial killer thrown in. It’s a strange book, and incredibly imaginative, and I think it’s fair to say you’d struggle to come across anything similar on your shelves. Plus it has a rather unexpected and incredibly strange ending that I won’t spoil here (mainly because I don’t think you’d believe it!), and if that’s not enough to tempt you then I don’t really know what is.