Sunday, August 05, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' is a faithful book adaptation which is both a good and a bad thing. For people who have read the book, written by Patrick Süskind, and liked it this is a film they are quite likely to like as well. They think of a passage from the book and how it could look, and director Tom Tykwer and his crew have made it look probably close to their imagination. The visuals, especially in the second half of the film truly are extraordinary. But film is another medium than books and in my opinion some minor changes would have helped the film.

One important thing is its pacing. If you know nothing about the story there is a good chance you will find the middle part quite dull and the final act going too fast. Let's start at the beginning. We meet Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, being born on the fish market in Paris in the 18th century. The boy, who has no scent of his own, has a sense of smell that could lead him anywhere in the dark. To collect different scents becomes an obsession until, after I have skipped quite a bit from the story, as an adolescent (played by Ben Whishaw) he smells a woman in the way he has never smelled it. For the first time he sees, or actually smells, beauty. Sort of by accident he kills the woman and then tries to capture the scent, in which he fails to do so. This changes a couple of things.

First of all he decides he wants to be a perfumer and he chooses Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) as his teacher. He wants to be this so he can learn how to keep the essence of a scent. All this leads him to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world where he learns a technique which he is about to try on different women. Since Jean-Baptiste has no feeling whatsoever, killing the woman first seems most easy. He needs thirteen samples to create his masterpiece and we learn quite early in the film that Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) will be his final victim. She is the daughter of the powerful Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman).

How the story unfolds is for you to see, but to say it is interesting is an understatement. The ending feels oddly out of tone with the rest of the film, although it was done how it probably should have been. If Tykwer had chosen another approach he would have made a lot of readers upset. The screenplay part here might not please some, but read the novel to understand Tykwer's choices.

The feeling of watching some problems with translating things from text to images was always there. Especially the voice over, done superbly by John Hurt, emphasized this thought. I was often amazed, impressed by the visuals, the Whishaw-performance and most of all by Tykwer's brave attempt to make a film out of a book that was considered unfilmable. On the other hand I was never impressed by the film itself. Almost, most of all in the end, but I never really got there. Still, 'Perfume' is a unique film which deserves praise on a lot of levels.


Ensemble dramas are tricky to pull off. Often the weight falls too fully on one character for the other voices to be heard or the plotlines spin out of control. Writer/director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo keeps a steady hand on the tiller and pulls off a finely-tuned debut feature.

That he is so clearly in control, is interesting, since it is this very issue that lies at the heart of the film. Jorge is growing up fast and trying to spread his wings, desperate to make more of his life than his father Andres (Héctor Colomé) – a janitor – has achieved. The film opens with an act of rebellion that, for the unfortunate Jorge, leaves him unable to take proper control of his life.

Two years on and he is the janitor he never wanted to be, looking after his dementia-struck dad in his spare time. He dreams of a career in business and of a controlling stake in a will we/won’t we relationship with the (much more upwardly mobile) girl next door Natalia (Eva Pallarés). He spends most of his spare time lost in the business of sending out CVs or up on the rooftop discussing the inconsequential things in life with best buddy Israel (Raúl Arévalo) – who has a whole set of family problems of his own.

The flipside of the story concerns Jorge’s brother Antonio (Antonio de la Torre) – a con, who meets the girl of his dreams, Paula (Marta Etura) at a prison workshop. They fall in lust and are quickly to be found getting it on in the interests of getting Paula pregnant, which leads to unexpected consequences for Antonio and his hapless brother.

The plotline sounds as though it is on the fast-track to farce, but Arévalo keeps a tight rein on things, placing the weight on character over a quick laugh every time. Each of the players feels fully fleshed-out and despite dealing with traditional coming-of-age sexuality concerns, Arévalo avoids cliché. The plotline’s complexity is matched by the depth of the issues explored, with the cast uniformly coming up trumps.

Arévalo has a flare for direction and carefully crafts scenes so that they echo one another throughout the film. There are repeated scenes, for example, of people on two sides of an object mirroring one another. Unlike many debut directors, however, he doesn’t let this directorial styling get the better of him and – as with everything else in the film – cleverly controls it so that it adds to the cohesiveness rather than becoming overwrought.

The film snagged a clutch of Goya awards and a host of other festival nominations and rightly so. Arévalo and the younger members of his up-and-coming cast are ones to watch.

Double vie de Véronique, La

Weronika (W) of Poland and Veronique (V) of France seem to begin life with identical natures, but develop into extreme opposites: W becomes strictly spiritual in her personality and view of life, attending to the inner and the private; and V becomes strictly material, attending to the outer and the social. At first I saw the same connections I thought the girls see; but later I interpreted events differently from how I think they do. I'll use a few scenes as examples.

At her father's place W wakes in a fright with a vague sense that she's not alone in the world, as if some spirit visits her. Later when she sights V in the square, she seems to have an other-worldly experience, as if this other girl is connected to that spirit. I assumed the same connection; but on watching the movie again, I realized that I had barely noticed something obvious in that scene: W is in imminent physical danger of being run over by vehicles and being knocked on the head or arrested by riot police, while V is physically safe and sound on her bus. To have an inner experience on seeing one's double is fine; but at the same time, the sight of her double being safe and sound should encourage W to want to protect her own body and to get out of the square. Instead W reacts in her usual private way, standing in almost a trance as behind her the riot police prepare to move. Run W, run!! As for that other spirit, it is W's experience in reacting to her chest pains, for which she never seeks medical treatment. But she carefully defends her inner life as she prepares for her concert and tries to avoid her boyfriend Antek. He seems to be of good character, but any love affair can stress the spirit.

Beginning with her first scene as a young woman, V vaguely senses some sort of loss in her life. Later the parallel to the scene in the square happens in the hotel room. V vaguely tells the puppeteer Fabbri (F) that she's always sensed there was someone else, and she's always known what to do. When F asks V to tell everything about herself, she promptly empties the contents of her purse onto the bed, then smiles sweetly as he goes through them. When V sees the photo of W that has been in her purse for a long time, V seems quickly to connect the photo with that someone else who has always helped her know what to do, and to connect her sense of loss with the assumed death of that person. I assumed the same connections myself. But after watching again later I paid more attention to some aspects of this scene: we can take the contents of her purse as her private inner self, what little she has of one, which she so willingly dumps onto the bed, and which F goes through in a mocking manner, for example, making her crystal ball disappear - much as in an earlier scene he drives off with the angel-spirit on the side of his van. V's private life is under stress as it always is with a lover, even one of good character, which F lacks. To grieve at the assumed death of someone is fine; but the sight of the photo of her double from inside her own purse should encourage V to look within and to take care of her private self. Instead she reacts in her usual material way, imagining a dead body somewhere, and allowing F to enter her with the sort of mechanical sex one sees in bad pornography. Dig in, V, dig in!! As for the loss V senses, it is her experience in reacting to the withering of her own private life as she glides superficially and mechanically through the motions of her social life. As for her always knowing what to do, it is due to her own keen attention to the outer world and its social conventions - attention that W clearly lacks, though she tries to be kind to people. In another scene we see that V has a heart condition as does W; but of course V immediately gets medical treatment for it, as we next see her coming up the stairs of a hospital.

(BTW some have supposed that F has mysterious insight into some connection between W and V; but he could base his novel on nothing more than what V does and tells him in the hotel room.)

W flourishes spiritually while paying the obvious price for never getting medical help for her heart condition. V flourishes materially and socially, but in the end she seems purely mechanical in going through all the right motions: she moves the puppet of herself while F controls her; she drives her car to dad's place; she operates its power window to reach to the tree; then she runs like a puppet to dad, who has been working wood with his new sophisticated tool. Each girl succeeds in her own way, but also pays a heavy price for being over-specialized.

The many parallels between W and V serve as artistic device to compare and contrast them. But connections between W and V, other than each sighting the other briefly, are not required in this interpretation. For each of the girls that sighting is an awful tease, since she cannot realize how easily the other girl can deal with the current situation, in which she is so unaware and helpless herself. Here is a pair of stories: the first is a slight revision that lets each girl survive, and the second brings them together.