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'Perfume' — It's Not Another Snuff Film

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stone
Susan Stone is a contributing reporter/producer for NPR based in Berlin, Germany. Before relocating to Germany for a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in 2005, she was a producer, editor, reporter and director at NPR’s headquarters in Washington for 10 years. Most recently, Stone was a producer and director for the weekend editions of NPR's award-winning news magazine All Things Considered, where she created a signature monthly music feature for the show.