How often has a film attempted to seriously stir our olfactory perceptions, to connect us to the power, the very essence of this sense? Better yet, how would a filmmaker approximate the experience? We’re not talking about sight or sound — the more immediately obvious senses to render onscreen with Digital Dolby accompaniment. Or even taste and touch, which can be triggered through presentation and texture to create the appetizingly lush proportions.
No, smell requires a greater degree of imagination from actors and filmmakers to instill in an audience the presence of pheromones that can raise the hairs in the nostrils like those along the back of the neck in anticipation of exhilaration or a heightened impression of fear. Now imagine even further, never having access to this sense in the first place. This blank state is where I began when introduced to Tom Tykwer’s latest film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Yet in his more-than-capable hands, I walked away with an appreciation for a sensation close in spirit the powerful allure of scent.
He is intrigued as I share this appreciation with him during a recent phone interview. His surprise is a mix of genuine amazement and wonder, but underneath I sense that my sensory-deprived state has somehow unexpectedly challenged him. He has summoned for audiences a guide with an almost perfect sense of smell enraptured by his delirious and captivating abilities, to the point of killing young women in order to create a mythic, spellbinding scent.
But has Tykwer truly done enough for someone who has no connection to the sense in the first place?
“Since birth?” the director asks incredulously and he stops himself from probing further because time is short. But the questions remain ever so close throughout our exchange because Tykwer fell in love with “the idea of the world of smell as being so important to the main character.”
Yet it is not just the character of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) but the very world explored in Patrick Suskind’s best-selling novel upon which the film is based; Perfume eschews the aristocratic signifiers of the period.
“It goes much down below and into the scum and the dirt and the filth of the lower-class life,” Tykwer says.
And Tykwer takes audiences on a guided tour of this dank, putrid landscape to the degree that it begs the question: How could such a phenomenal sensibility develop in the muck? In Grenouille, we are presented with the age-old tale of the striver, the passionate dreamer who somehow sees or imagines — or in this case detects an urgent aroma — beyond his station, beyond the expectations of how far one could rise. And Grenouille does whatever it takes to achieve his ephemeral dream.
So, too, does Tykwer. I inquire about the development of this project, a period piece about a man, a murderer no less, with an acute sense of smell, not a talent or ability easily translatable or identifiable for audiences. I find the same intense, passionate drive in the filmmaker as seen in his protagonist. He attacked not only the challenge of deciphering the language of literature into a cinematic dialect accented for the senses but he also took up arms in support of a challenging film.
In response to my supposition that his film couldn’t be made in Hollywood, Tykwer forcefully argued that “it all depends on how determined you are that you can pull off something completely exceptional and unique out of the material and if you have material that is unique, which in this case is definitely true, it is still hard. It was really hard to finance this film in Europe. I mean to say, ‘Let’s go and make this film about a guy who smells and goes and kills all these virgins and gets eaten at the end.’ That’s not easy.”
He points to recent films like Little Children (“Quite incredible”) and Letters From Iwo Jima (“You know, it’s in Japanese,” he marvels) as examples of unique and original stories. In those two selections he shows no preference for either independent or studio productions because it matters little where the film comes from — more that an audience, himself included, “can be taken to a place where we haven’t been before. But on the way there, we want to encounter some good old friends. It can be a style or music because it’s fun to know your way around a little bit and then be surprised.”
As I feebly wallow in the post-holiday studio muck of Code Name: The Cleaner and The Hitcher and prepare for the onslaught of the disposable blockbuster happy meals to come, I am heartened because the link between Tykwer and Grenouille crystallizes. Tykwer is attuned to all film, seemingly as much as any critic (he admits to watching a couple of films a day when time permits) and, like Grenouille, he seizes upon every offering and scoffs at the clichés about declining quality.
As Tykwer discovers more about the craft, he continues to infuse his work with unique perspectives and sensory triggers that whet appetites and present a glimpse of heaven. (tt stern-enzi)