How does a director film something that by design is almost unfilmable?
Based on a book written by Patrick Suskind, “Perfume : The Story of A Murderer” tells the story of the elusive realm of scents described into words. The film of the same name recently in local cinemas extends the conceit to transformed the words into visual images on screen. The end result could have easily been a horrible mess considering how elusive descriptions of scents could be but surprisingly that was not the case in this adaptation. It actually turned out to be a really interesting way to spend 147 minutes on a Saturday afternoon with good company.
“Perfume: The Story of A Murderer”, directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run"), revolved around the fictional life and times of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) who lived in 18th century France. From the moment of his remarkable birth amidst the offal of the Paris fish market, Grenouille possessed in him 2 astounding characteristic that set him aside from the human masses around him. The first was his almost supernatural sense of smell which gave him the ability to discern even the slightest scent and the second being the total absence of scent on his body. His first attribute would eventually introduced him to the world of perfumery in Paris of the time and his apprenticeship with the perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) who has passed his prime when Grenouille showed up on his doorstep.
It was with Baldini that Grenouille began to perfect his craft using his astounding sense of smell to duplicate rival perfumes and immensely improve on them with addition of his own. Being the cash cow that long eluded him, Baldini let Grenouille full access to his perfume laboratory and his own considerable experience at the art of making perfume. What Baldini was not aware was that Grenouille had his own reasons for wanting to learn the art of distilling scents into perfumes. Once he has learned all that he could from Baldini, Grenouille moved on to Grasse in Southern France to further perfect his art. It was in this hamlet surrounded by fields of vividly colored lavender that Grenouille ultimate goal was revealed to all. Craving human aromas that himself lacked, Grenouille went on to distil the fragrance from virgin females of the area which also resulted in the victims death. Grenouille would eventually be captured but not before he completed his collection of 13 fragrance notes that he needed to create his ultimate perfume. The perfume would be both his savior and curse in the end once he realized that what he wanted all along was the very thing that he destroyed in the service of his obsession.
“Perfume” was definitely not for everyone much less for those of the faith hearted type. I found it by chance showing at KLCC TGV while trying to decide which movie to watch with a fellow film enthusiast last Saturday afternoon. I had heard of the story from the net but didn’t really know what it was all about and who acted in it. Considering the other options that was showing at that cinema, it looked like the most intriguing of the bunch that we both could agree on. Little that we know that we would be visually assaulted by the rich imagery of the film right from the first frames. In some scenes, the sheer amount of visual layers happening around the actors was simply too impressive to ignore. The film’s high production value was clearly apparent in the meticulous visual details of background, props and period costumes shown on screen.
I was even more impressed by the way the director of photography managed to capture the visual representation of what was essentially the invisible realm of scents that the film’s protagonist explores his life in. Nary a cartoon like haze of fragrance visual cue in sight, “Perfume” quickly enveloped viewers in the world of scents whether they be the stink of a Parisian fish market, the undulating fields of lavender in Grasse or the waft of fragrance from the bare shoulders of a red haired virgin. I remembered sitting there in the dark cinema trying to discern which aromas that surrounded me were real and which were just a memory recall from seeing the scenes as they unfolded. It was as if the director was able to personify scent as a physical being and set her to work on the film. The sheer genius and imaginative camera work on this film made a story that would be nearly unfilmable into a visual feast the such that has not been seen for some time.
Ben Whishaw who played Grenouille in the film was another unexpected find while watching the film. While lacking the number of lines customary attributed to the main character of a film, Whishaw’s performance spoke volumes with his grim and brooding interpretation of the character. With a running narration provided by John Hurt, Whishaw masterfully showed how well he could act even without uttering a word. It was a wonderfully nuanced performance which left me feeling very impressed by this young actor in his film debut. Another surprise for me was Dustin Hoffman’s turn as Baldini whose memorable screen presence played well against the darkening personality that Whishaw’s character was becoming. While it may not be very long in terms of screen time, Hoffman was able to make the best impression with his portrayal of the aging perfumer desperate for a new victory even at the expense of letting a monster develop right under his nose.
From the first frames of “Perfume”, there was no doubt that the story that the film chronicled would be dark and at times fascinatingly morbid. However it was not all dark and gloomy as it had also it’s share of gallows humor. The running gag of what happens to people who gave Grenouille up throughout his life left me smirking and anticipating what would happen next. Audience would also be forewarned to expect a highly controversial sequence in near the end of the film as Grenouille faced the crowd at his public execution. I have to admit that the movement of the story into the realm of magic realism during that sequence totally caught me off guard as I was working under the premise that it was a film that was based on a real story up to that point. I guess that I would have expected it if I read the original novel that this movie was based but since I didn’t it came as a shock to the system which left me reeling at it’s impact. The audience around where I sat that day at KLCC TGV had even less than sympathetic responses to this sequence which they did not hesitate to verbalize them much to my annoyance when all I wanted was to try to make sense of what I was watching.
“Perfume: The Story of A Murderer” was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. The film asks a lot of the viewers but delivers on the goods once the agreement between the two parties have been accepted. Is “Perfume” an example of how an unfilmable work should be translated into a film? It could be but that is not my place to argue so. While people may not be able to agree on the merits of this film, no one would be able to deny that it is a film that is out of the ordinary.
Monday, March 26, 2007
How does a director film something that by design is almost unfilmable?