Sunday, April 19, 2009
83. German director Tom Tykwer’s film “Das parfum (Perfume: The story of a murderer)” (2006): Capturing the smell of the bizarre with sight and sound
German cinema through the ages has shown an incredible felicity of dealing with the bizarre. And Das Parfum is no exception. The 1920 silent film of Robert Wiene called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari laid the foundation for world cinema to deal with the hallucinations of an insane mind. The film was an expressionist classic for any student of cinema. German classics that followed over the years (Marnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse, von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, films of the Oberhausen school that included Syberberg, Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder) have captured the aberrations of the human mind on film in a way that no other country could match in terms of quality or numbers. Then along comes Tom Tykwer holding the very torch that Robert Wiene lit almost a century ago.
Confronted with a screenplay of a bestseller that at least four major filmmakers Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Milos Foreman, and Ridley Scott thought was difficult to capture on film, Tom Tykwer has proved the masters wrong. He has quite effectively adapted Patrick Suskind’s bestselling novel Perfume on screen. And he was able to capture the “essential” smell of the novel on screen with sight and sound.
Tykwer presents the viewer a film on a murderer with little or no visual violence (recall Fritz Lang’s M). There is no sex either. Tykwer presents a not so ugly-actor, Ben Whishaw, as an ugly/repulsive personality Jean-Baptiste Grenouille on screen. The character speaks only a few lines but has to "speak" instead with his body (recall the silent films Dr Caligari and Marnau's Nosferatu). Tykwer presents visuals that are strangely expressionist in character (the abject filth of the fish market, where the lead character is born or the amazing, sudden, metaphoric collapse of the house of the leading Parisian perfumer, Baldini, played by Dustin Hoffman, in which he lived and worked). Tykwer is able to visually suggest the foul smell of the fish market, just as Goscinny and Uderzo created the “foul smelling” fishmonger Unhygienix and his wife Bacteria in the Asterix comic strips. If the viewer has been fortunate to have viewed Wiene's Dr Caligari or Marnau's Nosferatu one could spot an unnerving resemblance with Tykwer's visuals. Both visually exaggerate to drive home a psychological perspective. The lengthened black and white shadows of the earlier films are not far removed from the visual repulsion of the fishmarket captured in color in Tykwer's work or even the strange abode of perfumer Baldini designed for the film. In Tykwer's film, realism is replaced by a new type of expressionism. Anyone looking for conventional realism, will not find it in this film.
The film and the book, on which it is based, present the 18th century fictional story of man born in filth and foul odor who has a highly developed sense of smell and can even smell stones and glass that most of find odorless. He is ugly and despised. He is hated by one and all. Tykwer’s film initially encourages the viewer to hate the character who has killed 13 beautiful virgins for the bizarre requirement of their body smell to make the ultimate perfume that would diminish hate and develop love. Perfume is not a real story; it is a modern fable that digs at the viewer’s sensibilities. A viewer is prodded to figure out what the director and the story-teller are suggesting. How much science is there in this fable? We do know of plants and animals exuding pheromones. We also know that the females of species exude them. The main character of the film/novel likewise collects the odors of young women, not of men.
An interesting aspect of the film is that most of the talking is done by the peripheral characters in the tale. Ben Whishaw has to emote in different ways while animating his extraordinary olfactory sensibilities and Tykwer aids this by employing close-ups of his nose. The casting is an imaginative one—Whishaw is a talented Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) alumnus while the three major conventional roles are given to established actors Dustin Hoffman, John Hurt and Alan Rickman.
A casual viewer would approach the film as a thriller about murders--which the film is indeed at the most basic level. But the film is much more—it is a film about love in a world full of hatred. Can we love the wretched of the earth that are ugly, smelly and poor? Novelist Victor Hugo wrote about the unforgettable hunchback of Notre Dame who was only loved by one person and hated by all others. Can a perfume-like agent change our attitudes? Can a perfume-like agent transform the appearance of an ugly person into a desirable one?
For those interested, Suskind’s novel and Tykwer’s film are replete with parallel Christian symbolism, with ugly Grenouille representing both the devil and Christ, the "crucifixion", and the change of heart of the average person after “the event,” the importance of love in a world bereft of love, etc. The list goes on. But the film entertains even without the suggested symbolism. Over the years writers and filmmakers have come up with individuals who personify both the good and the evil. This movie is another example of cinema where the viewer will be encouraged to read the novel after enjoying the film, if the viewer has not read the book already.
For some, the film will serve as a source of knowledge of the two methods of extracting perfumes—maceration and enfleurage. The film’s story takes us to the fields where flowers are grown to extract their essence/oils and this practice is prevalent to this day.
Tykwer’s film uses the narrator (the soothing John Hurt’s voice) to infuse the element of a chorus as in Greek play. “There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it he thought. To hell with the world. With the perfume. With himself.” This technique allows for the viewer to believe the narrator to be neutral.
The film ends with the narrator stating “For the first time in their lives, they believed they had done something purely out of love” Tykwer’s end is philosophical, positive and seemingly uplifting. A reader of the novel will know what actually transpired. Tykwer opts for visual suggestions on screen at the end of the tale thereby avoiding a graphic description of the end. A close look at the final shot will reveal the director's contribution. It was an astute move by the director to win his audience. Tykwer needs to be complimented for every decision he seems to have taken, in making this movie. He made an impact with his unusually different cinema in Run, Lola Run (his debut film ) and I believe he was equally successful with his second film based on the late Kieslowski’s script Heaven, which I have yet to view.
Tom Tykwer, luckily for us, seems to have identical cinematic genes as those of Wiene, Marnau, von Sternberg, Herzog and Syberberg. Predictably, the film has won many awards in German speaking nations but not elsewhere. You might not like Tykwer's films initially, but they are films that will not be easy to forget not just because of the unusual subjects but equally for his cinematic treatment of the subjects.