Perfume? It’s a stinker

The big screen adaptation of Patrick Suskind's 'unfilmable' bestselling novel leaves a bad smell.

Emily Hill

Topics Culture

Until now, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, a black literary tapestry of richly described smells, was considered unfilmable. It describes the life and death of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is born with a profound and unique sense of smell: not merely detecting the scent of roses and fruits, but steel, stones and impending thunderstorms. Suskind refused to sell the rights for 10 years, and even Stanley Kubrick declared he couldn’t make it work on screen due to the nature of the narrative – a sort of watered-down Jorge Luis Borges fantasy of a man who kills beautiful virgins in order to distil the perfect perfume.

In order to make it work on screen, Perfume‘s German director, Tom Twyker, has made some adjustments. Aside from the challenge of presenting smells on screen (which Twyker translates into a rich array of sumptuous and foul colours, from beautiful yellow fruit to yellow vomit), there was the challenge of presenting a hero who barely speaks and who, though engrossing, is completely repulsive. Although Twyker does some quite astonishing things in the presentation of smell, translating it into the clarity of his colours – the glossy off-pink of squirming maggots, the thick black mud, the grey fish guts and rats of a Parisian fish market, and an extraordinary blood-spattered birth scene, which features a real premature baby writhing about with its umbilical cord still attached – he fails to capture the essence of the lead character.

In Suskind’s opening, ‘[Jean-Baptiste Grenouille] was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.’ In Twyker’s film, although this line is read out in John Hurt’s audio commentary, it is made clear that Grenouille is not a devil: he is an orphan, left to die among the fish guts, uncared for, unloved, and thus an emotional ‘victim’. He may be a psychopath, but it’s important we understand where he’s coming from. In the film, his first murder occurs as an accident. Grenouille kills a beautiful fruit-selling virgin when he is just trying to stop her screaming. As it is, she dies, he rips apart her dress, gives her a good, soft-porn lingering sniff around the breasts and then cries because he can’t make her smell stay on his fingers.

But this is not really the problem. If someone wanted to make some erotic snuff flick out of Perfume the results would be less repugnant than director Twyker’s urge to impose a higher morality on the book. In an interview with the Telegraph he explained, ‘[Grenouille’s] search for the perfect smell always felt to me like it came from a big hole somewhere deep inside him. This guy’s born and abandoned. He almost gets washed away with the fish guts… I think this feeling of being cut off from society, walking around with nobody noticing you, is something we have all experienced. It makes you want to do something desperate to get noticed.’ And the power of Grenouille’s nose does win him notice. And the slaughtering of virgins is made to seem like an almost laudable aim – ‘He’s finally expressing himself!’

Unfortunately, the film is not so much engrossing as ridiculous. One of the misguided decisions on Twyker’s part was to give so much attention to Grenouille’s nose. The film begins with a spotlight on Grenouille’s nose, reminiscent of the spotlight on Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle in The Silence of the Lambs, and thereafter there are 27 close-ups of Grenouille’s nozzle, and some Matrix-like sniffing actions, in which Grenouille avoids being hit by things by smelling and dodging at super speed. Twyker’s mistake is to try to humanise (and even, at times, to render comic) a man who is not supposed to have a soul and feelings, and to inject sexual feeling and remorse into the grand finale, which features a ridiculous naked orgy in an eighteenth-century town lynch mob.

Ultimately, Perfume is not unfilmable because of its reliance on descriptions of scent; it is unfilmable because the blank facts of the text are not enough: where words may have made moments seductive, filming them sometimes makes them ridiculous, or just inadequate. It’s much like why Lolita doesn’t work as a film as it does as a novel, because you cannot make Nabokov’s prose flesh. Without it, Humbert Humbert comes across as little more than a paedophile who abuses a 12-year-old girl. In Perfume, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille murders women, cuts off their hair and coats them in goose fat to make a perfume which cannot be made. It’s not much of a film unless your bent runs to nose close-ups.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today