Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by Ben Whishaw, searches for the ultimate scent.
One of Grenouille's obsessions is the Plum Girl, played by Rachel Hurd-Wood.
A bewigged Dustin Hoffman chats with director Tom Tykwer on the movie set.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, what does that make the nose? Well, for a start, it's the unlikely star of a new film directed by Tom Tykwer (who also directed Run, Lola, Run). His newest film, Perfume, is a dark and dramatic tale of obsession, murder and the quest for a truly transcendent fragrance.
It's based on a best-selling 1986 novel by Patrick Suskind. The book introduced an anti-hero named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who follows his nose to the point of obsession. Grenouille is played by British actor Ben Whishaw. Born into the squalor of 18th-century Paris, miserable Grenouille finds beauty and solace in the world of scent. His unearthly sense of smell both protects and leads him astray. When he discovers the art of perfumery, he believes he has found his calling. He convinces perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to give him a job.
The scents he wants to capture are of regular things like glass, stones, housecats and, eventually, human beings. The quest for this last scent, however, requires murder. Needless to say, Grenouille is no ordinary perfumer. And Perfume is no ordinary film. Its hero is evil, filthy and has almost no dialogue. The part was a challenge for actor Ben Whishaw.
"On my last day of shooting with Dustin Hoffman, he said, 'Thank you, Ben, and good luck. You’re now making a silent movie,'" says Whishaw.
Without much to say, Whishaw found himself having to act with his nose — which is seen in close-up 27 times, according to one film critic. Smelling, he admits, is normally not the most expressive of behaviors. So he and director Tom Tykwer went searching for inspiration.
"Tom and I watched animals quite a lot to see what we could steal from their behavior. And animals, particularly cats and dogs, have a very vivid way of interacting with the world through their noses," Whishaw says.
Tykwer brought in a special "dirt crew" to add centuries of grime from the streets of Barcelona, where much of the film was shot. To give the film the look of paintings by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, a special lighting technique was developed. Saturated colors, painterly scenes and luminous images of blood, sweat and fear help to illuminate what Grenouille senses through his nose.
Perfume cost about $65 million to make, and expectations for the film are high. The book is the second-best selling German novel of all time after All Quiet on the Western Front. For years, author Suskind refused to sell the film rights. The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, spent 20 years in his quest to get the book on screen. His obsessive quest inspired its own movie — 1997’s Rossini, with a screenplay written by Suskind.
Another component of that myth is the list of Hollywood legends who’ve been attached to the film during its 20-year voyage to the screen. That list includes directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. The weight of all these expectations is evident in the mixed reviews of German critics. One such critic is Peter Korte, who writes for the Sunday version of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He says the film sentimentalizes the dark and sometimes bleak message of Suskind's book.
"I didn't expect them to soften the edges of the novel that much," says Korte. "I thought they would keep more of the dark side. He is a mad genius, and so they tried to soft pedal."
Now, American audiences can test Perfume for themselves.
A book, a movie, now a set of perfumes. Based on the novel "Perfume," this $700 collection from Thierry Mugler offers scents from melon to smelly feet.
In the end, it was Human Existence that just about did me in. But it wasn't a philosophical crisis — it was just a perfume smelling at the offices of IFF — International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., in New York.
The 15 scents I sampled are IFF's "olfactory interpretation" of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume, which is the basis for the new movie. It is the story of Grenouille, an obsessed and gifted perfumer in 18th century France who discovers that he himself has no scent. In his effort to create an alluring perfume that he could wear, Grenouille becomes a murderer.
One imagines the perfumers of IFF were more restrained in obtaining their ingredients.
The final products, created by Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz, are a stunning and at times frightening example of perfume as art. They're about smelling in its purest sense and about evoking a time or a place through fragrance.
Thierry Mugler, famous for his sweet perfume, Angel, has released the set: 14 crystal bottles holding a quarter ounce each and one bottle of half an ounce. They nest in a red velveteen box.
I won't attempt to summarize them all. Reading 15 descriptions would be as exhausting as smelling them! Let me also say that I smelled these perfumes on paper scent strips, not on skin. You'll see why.
The perfumes include:
Baby — Creamy, milky, sweetly sour, a blend of 25 ingredients. Inspired by the smell of a freshly washed (thank goodness) infant.
Paris 1738 — Could also be called Times Square, January 1, 11 a.m. Smells of cheese and feet, and a general state of being unwashed. Ingredients include essence of seaweed and a modern synthetic molecule that smells like dirty hair. Paris 1738 lingers in the room like an unwanted, rather smelly guest. It certainly evokes a time and a place when perfume was used to rescue delicate noses from the stench of the streets. Handle with care.
Virgin No. 1 — Named for Grenouille's first victim, a beautiful young Parisian plum seller. According to IFF, for this scent, scientists analyzed and chemically reconstructed the scent of a virgin's belly button. At this time, I cannot comment on the realism of that element, but the other listed notes of yellow plums and milk (seems like goat's milk) are evident.
Atelier Grimal — Named for the Tannery where anti-hero Grenouille works, it smells of old, creased leather with a dab of animal and a smidge of noxious chemicals.
Human Existence — Like Paris 1738 with a jaunty dash of incontinence. There's an element of scared animal. It's foul, it's sad and it takes you places you don't want to go.
There are more pleasant scents in the box, like Sea, a melony fresh take on an ocean breeze, and Noblesse, a blend of rare flower aromas that smells expensive because it is. But those aren't the ones that will change your nose's outlook on life.
The fantasy scents are available in limited numbers from an online service in the U.S. The pricetag is $700. That may sound preposterous. Then again, they're already sold out in Europe.
Susan Stone sniffs discerningly in Berlin, where she is a freelance correspondent.