Monday, May 11, 2009

Stanley Kubrick once contemplated to make a film on the novel by Patrick Suskind before regarding it unfilmable. I read in a newspaper article that Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton were also once considered to bring the strange story of a murderer contained in the novel on celluloid. Now that the film is finally out, directed by the Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, I doubt whether it was really unfilmable. Off course, Suskind’s narrative power is par excellence. And a film can never exceed its source: that too when the source is soaring high, denying most of the possibilities of getting realized on-screen.

Perfume: The Story of a Murder is Suskind’s best known book and tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in the 18th century French fish-market amidst unimaginable stench and filth. He is gifted with a remarkable sense of smell. The way he is raised (or rather raises himself) is at times strange and heart-wrenching. Kids in the orphanage don’t like him because he makes them unsettled – he is always seen smelling something: sometimes rotten leaves; sometimes dead rats. His existence, devoid of love and human connection, revolves around smell. In the orphanage, and later in the tannery where he works as a laborer, he is subjected to stench alone. Only when he goes to Paris for the first time, he realizes that there are other kind of smells too. Paris presents him, in the words of the narrator, the “utopia of unexplored smells”.

There is a scene in which he follows a girl through the streets, not following her but her smell to be precise. After accidentally killing her, he tries to gather her smell through his hands like someone dying with thirst tries to drink from the river, he tries to preserve the beauty of the smell only to get frustrated by the impossibility of it. It is then he takes apprenticeship under Baldini, a once-had-it perfumer, to learn the art of creating and preserving perfumes. Because Grenouille is odorless, which according to his understanding means soulless, his existence has no value. In wanting to prove to the world that he exists, he gradually rises into a murderer, killing dozens of virgins, to preserve their smells – to make a perfect perfume: smelling which every last person on earth will feel like being in heaven, though only for a short while.

I have read the book more than once – yes, it has dark overtones, is disturbing, and is filled with such extraordinary descriptions of smells that one would wonder how it could ever be filmed! The film, though not as good as the book, is compulsively watchable: a sort of guilty pleasure with lush visuals and fine periodic details. The orphanage, the tannery, the streets of Paris, the pilgrimage of the perfumer where he learns the “art of effleurage” – Grasse, and numerous places in the film where Grenouille roams are shown in details with repeated zooms on his nose. The best moments are the ones featuring Baldini (played by Dustin Hoffman – what fine actor he is!) and Grenouille (played by Ben Whishaw very satisfyingly, sometimes – dare I say – making me sympathize for him, only to find it unethical the next moment).

There are notes (scents) in a perfume like that in a musical piece. Sometimes there are three notes, sometimes twelve. Every note (or scent) has its time-span with the final note lasting the longest. There can be, Baldini explains, an extra note – the thirteenth scent that dominates all the rest. Grenouille chooses the beautiful Laura (played by Rachael Hurd-Wood) to extract the lynchpin of his perfect perfume. Laura is sweet and child-like, and from the moment she appears, we wait in anticipation and horror for her inescapable end. While watching the film and even reading the book, I imagined how the perfect perfume would smell like. In the end when Grenouille releases it in front of the crowd gathered to execute him, its smell enamors them and makes them under-go an orgy in ecstasy!

The book is indeed better, but the film is fast-paced and will have us watch with curiosity the strangeness it presents. I only wonder how Kubrick would have made it had he not declared it unfilmable!