Of all the senses, it is the sense of smell that has least been explored in the realm of the silver screen. And with good reason. How do you possibly translate a sense so limitlessly varying and so personal an experience into one that can be encapsulated with sound and images?
Director Tom Twyker takes on the onerous task of translate the olfactory to the audiovisual, in his film Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. Adapted from German author Patrick Süskind’s ‘Das Parfum’, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born in the stench of eighteenth century Paris, who possesses a unique and powerful sense of smell.
Whishaw’s Grenouille is a striking character, though whether he can be considered a character is debatable. He is rather a state of mind, an anthropomorphic quest to find the world’s greatest aroma through any means necessary, his permanently mystified gaze a testament to the skill of the actor at manipulating his character’s emotion with subtle strength.
Through the brilliant uses of colour, sound, and cinematography, it becomes astoundingly easy to follow Grenouille’s olfactory expedition. Every scent is laid bare in a way that is astonishing in its ingenuity, and even for those not blessed with a sympathetic sense of smell, the film is a visual masterpiece.
However in the story it falls short. The narrative is excellent, an intriguing tale of murder and desire, yet the characters struggle to elect a protagonist. At times it is the tormented Grenouille we align with, yet just as quickly we can become immersed in hatred for him, and sympathy for his victims. While this could have been used to great effect, the transition is not as seamless as it needs to be, lending a feeling of unwelcome disconcertion.
Still, with flawless acting (Alan Rickman and Rachel Evan-Wood are outstanding, though it is Dustin Hoffman who runs off with his portion of the show), and with a delicate use of his audiovisual facilities, Twyker’s film is a superb example of the power cinema can wield in the right hands. A definite must-see, if only for the rare chance to see something truly different and breathtaking.