'Perfume': The Sense of Smell on the Big Screen

How do you make a movie about the sense of smell? German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) takes on the immensely popular novel by Patrick Suskind, which tells the story of a young Frenchman gifted with remarkable olfactory abilities who becomes a perfumer, and then a killer, in his quest to create the perfect scent.

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Movies can convey a lot of things but smell isn't one of them. So Patrick Suskind's bestselling novel "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has long been thought of as unfilmable. Now, German director Tom Tykwer has given it a try in a European blockbuster that's earned more than $100 million overseas. It opens today in this country.

Bob Mondello has a review.

BOB MONDELLO: Eighteenth century cities were not probably a treat for the nose. Consider open sewers and infrequent bathing just for a start. But Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in a stinking Paris fish market in 1738, has few other pleasures than aromas. He's sort of an odor savant as played by Ben Whishaw, inexpressive, isolated, very weird, but blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an ability to detect nuances on the breeze - the smell of stones, of water, of frog, not the most useful of talents, perhaps.

Until one day, walking pass the glittering shop, he detects a scent called Amor and Psyche(ph) that every perfume maker in Paris is trying to duplicate. And he tells a perfumer, played by Dustin Hoffman, that he knows what's in it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer")

Mr. BEN WHISHAW (Actor): (As Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) I don't know what the formula is, but I can make Amor and Psyche for you.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Giuseppe Baldini) Ah. And you think I just let you slop around my laboratory with the essential oils that are worth a fortune.

Mr. WHISHAW: Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Oh, well, Jean-Baptist Grenouille. You shall have the opportunity now, this very moment to prove yourself. Should your grandiose fail you, it will also be an opportunity for you to learn the virtue of humility.

Mr. WHISHAW: How much do you want me to make?

MONDELLO: Grenouille becomes his apprentice, learning to pull aromas from flowers by boiling their petals and combining them with animal fats. When he tries to capture the scent of a cat by boiling it, though, you'll sense problems to come. The title is "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," after all. Grenouille's aim is to capture the scent of woman and of love.

(Soundbite of movie, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer")

Mr. WHISHAW: Hold out your arms please.

Unidentified Woman: That smells horrible.

Mr. WHISHAW: It's the animal fat. (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: Creating a perfume. I've come across some strange men in my time.

Mr. WHISHAW: Just relax. Just scraping off the fat.

Unidentified Woman: Are you mad?

Mr. WHISHAW: I said relax.

Unidentified Woman: I've had enough. Get out of here.

MONDELLO: I have to say I'm a sucker for lost causes and a movie entirely about smells certainly qualifies. Remember those scratch and sniff cards John Waters used for "Polyester" and Hollywood's playing with spraying scents in theaters in the 1950s? I think that one was called Aromarama.

But "Perfume" is a lush art house epic, not an exploitation flick, so director Tom Tykwer's methods are more elegantly cinematic. He's an amazing film stylist, as he proved in "Run Lola Run," and here he immerses you images and sounds, rich textures and slobbery slurps, smooth glass bottles clattering onto rough wood tables. It's deliberately overdone to force to use your other senses to compensate for your sense of smell.

And as he plunges into piles of rotting fish and exalts in the slicing of a riped plum, he creates one heck of a rich film tapestry. It's gorgeous, even as the plot takes some really nuts-o, giggle-provoking turns toward the end. I can't say I smelled "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," exactly. But against all odds, I did find it intoxicating.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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