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The new film "Perfume," which opened this weekend, is a dark tale of obsession, murder and the quest for a truly transcendent fragrance. It's based on a German book and was directed by a German filmmaker, but the dialogue is in English. "Perfume" was eagerly awaited in its home country because some said it was a film that would never be made. Susan Stone explains.
SUSAN STONE: 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 German film directed by Tom Tykwer, known for "Run Lola Run." "Perfume" is based on the best-selling 1985 novel by Patrick Suskind, which introduced an anti-hero who follows his nose to the point of obsession.
SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PERFUME"
Mr. JOHN HURT (Actor): (As Narrator) He was not choosy. He did not differentiate between what are commonly considered to be good smells from bad. At least not yet.
STONE: He is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by British actor Ben Whishaw. Born into this squalor of 18th century Paris in the lowest of classes, miserable Grenouille finds beauty and solace in the world of scent. His unearthly sense of smell both protects him and leads him astray. When he discovers the art of perfumery, he believes he has found his calling. He convinces perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, played by Dustin Hoffman, to give him a job.
SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PERFUME"
Mr. BEN WHISHAW (Actor): (As Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) Can I come to work for you? Master, can I?
Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Giuseppe Baldini) Oh, let me think about it.
Mr. WHISHAW: (As Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) Master, I have to learn how to keep smell.
STONE: The scents he wants to capture are of regular objects, like glass and stones and house cats, and eventually human beings, which leads to murder. Grenouille is no ordinary perfumer. And "Perfume" is no ordinary film. Its hero is evil, filthy and has almost no dialogue. It was a challenge for Ben Whishaw, the actor who portrays him.
Mr. 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.
STONE: 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 in itself, he admits, is normally not the most expressive of behaviors. So he and director Tom Tykwer went searching for inspiration.
Mr. WHISHAW: Tom and I discussed animals and 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.
STONE: For the eyes of the movie viewer, Tykwer brought in a special dirt crew each day to add and then remove 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 show what Grenouille senses through his nose.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In order to achieve the most sensual and sensory-driven experience for this film, we really worked a lot on textures and, of course, also on the colors. All the levers work towards the experience that relates on any level to smell.
STONE: "Perfume" cost about $65 million to make, and expectations for the film were high, not just because the book is so loved. It's the second best selling German novel of all time after "All Quiet on the Western Front." Reclusive author Patrick Suskind refused to sell the film rights for many years. The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, spent 20 years trying to bring "Perfume" to the screen. His obsessive quest inspired its own movie - 1997's "Rossini." In that ironic comedy, a writer named Jakob Windisch escapes all efforts from an overbearing producer to turn his book into a film.
SOUNDBITE OF FILM "ROSSINI"
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Character) Windisch refuses film rights of best selling novel, blah, blah, blah. So I'm about to ask (unintelligible)...
Mr. TOM TYKWER (Director): The writer of that screenplay was Patrick Suskind himself.
STONE: "Perfume's" director, Tom Tykwer, calls Suskind the J.D. Salinger of Germany.
Mr. TYKWER: So that's what made it also a little bit of a myth in Germany, or let's say in Europe, that the novel that will never be made into a film because of all these obstacles. That finally it made it is, I mean for a while it seemed like a miracle.
STONE: Another part of the myth is that in the 20 years since the book was published, a list of Hollywood legends has been linked to the project: directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. The weight of all these expectations can be seen in the mixed reviews from German critics. One 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.
Mr. PETER KORTE (Writer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): I didn't expect them to soften the edges of the novel that much. I thought they would keep more of the dark side. They wouldn't make the main character even a little ambiguous, whereas in the book he is not ambiguous at all. He is a bad genius, he's a mad genius and so they tried to soft pedal.
STONE: Korte says you can compare the film to the three notes of a perfume.
Mr. KORTE: His top note, production design, and all of which is impressive - it's very good. The heart note, what is lasting, what is staying with you once you leave the theater - it gets weaker.
STONE: And the base note, he says, which makes a perfume unique - simply isn't there at all. Now American audiences can test "Perfume" for themselves and maybe deliver to the German film makers the sweet smell of success. For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.
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