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Arts & Culture

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer won a cult audience in 1999 with

Run, Lola, Run. Now he tries to tap into a literary following by adapting Patrick Suskind's

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (currently playing throughout San Diego).

In Run, Lola, Run Tom Tykwer's orange-haired heroine raced against the clock to save her boyfriend. Tykwer composed the films driving soundtrack and delivered the kind of giddy kinetic rush that can only be gotten from a movie. Tykwers latest project is an adaptation of Patrick Suskinds best-selling novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer a book that has an international following. The story is set in 18th century Paris and involves an orphan named Jean-Baptiste Grenoullie (Ben Whishaw) who has an acute sense of smell. He soon realizes however that he has no scent of his own. This prompts him to seek the scent of others, especially young women. He decides he must capture their scent in a perfume that will finally make others take notice of him. The only catch is that he must kill each woman in order to bottle her smell. The film follows him on his killing spree and delivers an ending that comes from so far out of left field that it may leave many filmgoers with their mouths agape.

Ben Whishaw in Perfume: The STory of a Murderer

Perfume invites us to see the world from Jean-Baptistes perspective. The experience is like watching Psycho where you get so caught up in the details of the murders that you find yourself riveted to the screen even though you dont condone the actions of the murderer. Tykwer conveys Jean-Baptistes world with a skill that makes you feel as though you could close your eyes and smell 18th century Paris. Tykwer paints a rich, textured canvas in which the colors seem to jump off the screen. Its a visual style that manages to convey both the grit of the period setting and the perverse dream state of the main character.

Ben Whisaw, who alert filmgoers might remember as Keith Richards in Stoned , is phenomenal as Jean-Baptiste. While most actors deliver performances that scream out to be noticed, Whishaw gives a minimalist performance that literally recedes into the background. Thats perfect for a character who manages to sneak up on young women to kill them and who moves through society virtually unnoticed.

Tykwer came to San Diego for a screening of his film and to talk about the challenges of his new work.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

BETH ACCOMANDO: I read that Stanley Kubrick had deemed Perfume an unfilmable novel? Were you ever deterred in your attempts to bring it to the screen?

TOM TYKWER: I dont know where that myth got started. I spoke with Kubricks producer and he said that Kubrick simply didnt want to film it. I mean Kubrick is someone who has brought so many books that were much more unfilmable to the screen. I think 2001 was far more of a challenge than Perfume .

BA: So what did you find were the challenges of bringing this book to the screen?

TT: I guess the most challenging thing about it is that there is a main character who is lets say very ambivalent and we have mixed feelings about him but at the same time cant let go of him. Hes someone that I deeply understand in his motivation and his drive and his desires but then there is something that happens to him that makes him become a little scary. But for me the overwhelming experience about the novel was that the more dangerous he gets the less I am able to let him go. So I stay with him and embrace him as a protagonist even though he goes on a very disturbing path and makes choices that I cannot agree with and I think its this moral dilemma that the audience is put in that was also very difficult to pull off on screen.

BA: Now you dont think of film as being a good medium to convey the sense of smell, so how did you tackle that aspect of the film?

TT: We just decided to be as radically subjective as possible that we could be with camera and light and colors and editing, and of course with music and sound because we wanted the film to be completely seen through his nose because he is not watching the world he is smelling it. So what we tried to do was imitate the physicality of the process. The camera is grabbing the objects as greedily as he does. When he enters a new space where he hasnt been, being a collector of scents, the main interest is what havent I smelled yet. So he picks all these objects in the room quite quickly and tries to identify their smell and put them into his labyrinth of collections, and thats what we did too. We walk into rooms or spaces or streets with him, and in contrast to regular filmmaking, we dont start with a wide shot and then move in to the details. We start with the details because he starts with the details. He collects all these items because of their smelllets call them noteshe collect all these notes until they form a chord, and then those cords are a composition so you start with close ups and end with wide shots because thats his way of perceiving the world.

BA: You composed the music for Run, Lola, Run and for Perfume . Did that background in music help you in any way on Perfume?

TT: We tried to work very strongly on the music and how sound can represent smell, and how much it is a sibling of smell. The ideology of the character is that smell equals identity. So I am what I smell like. So his drama is that even though he is so obsessed with smells he realizes that he doesnt have a smell of his own. Thats why he comes up with this idea of a perfume for himself to make people pay attention and ultimately love him. This idea that smell equals identity may sound strange to some people but if we think about it, it isnt as strange as it seems in the first place. When we think about what is identity and what are we, everyone would agree that we are a collection of our own memories, and how lets say how we organize them and memories are connected to triggers that evoke those memories and one of those major triggers is smell. You enter a room and it could be the wallpaper, the carpet or someone is cooking something, and suddenly you are brought back to your childhood and you see your grandma. The elements in the room have a specific smell that reminds you of that and I think everyone knows that. That brings to mind the intimate relationship we have with smell and why it is it a sibling to music, because music does the same.

BA: Voiceover narration can pull an audience out of a film but you used it very well to pull the audience in. You have John Hurt narrate the story. He brings a kind of contemporary tone to the events. How did you approach the voiceover?

TT: The voiceover represents the language of the novel and this whole mix of irony and tragedy, and also what you say the modern feel about it. I admired that the novel had a take on 18th century that we were invited to experience it as if it was a modern contemporary life situation. I very much love that and I wanted the movie to be like. I always wanted this movie to feel like you were watching a film that was shot by people who went into a time machine and had a camera under the arm and were allowed to shoot in 18th century as if it was just there. In the most real sense, in the most believable and authentic cinema verite style that you can imagine. John Hurts voice is so fantastic and there is something about it that is classic and at the same time modern. He introduces the movie very importantly by giving it this kind of epic feel. The movie is an epic tale but at the same time of course it changes paths and directions that make it very unexpected. So he gives you this feeling of security, that you might be in a safe place because hes there, but then you are being dropped off a cliff.

BA: Do you see any themes running throughout all your films, something that ties them all together?

TT: This idea of somebody being obsessively ready to break all kinds of rules in pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of being loved. Thats exactly for instance what Lola is doing. She is running against even the physical law just in order to save her boyfriends life. All thats feeding her is this kind of love and the desire, lets say passion. Its a much darker passion thats driving the hero of Perfume but its basically the same in the intensity of his pursuit and his desire to get what he wants. He is quite ruthless in it and I think most of my heroes have been like that.

BA: The film strikes a very interesting tone, a kind of duality between gritty reality and dreamy fantasy.

TT: I have always been fascinated by the fact that film in itself is a little bit like you are entering a dream space. So the fantastical part of it is always attractive to me. To have a fairy tale feeling set in a realistic world just reflects for me reflects the way most people experience life. Its always very real and unreal at the same time. Theres always something about it that is fleeting and not concrete. I think its this whole ambivalence of life experience that I am trying to capture in films. We all know what it means to walk between these perceptions of reality. Sometimes we are caught up in our dream worlds and sometimes we are completely down to earth. I think our experience of life is somewhere in the middle, and I think cinema can beautifully reflect that.

Companion viewing: Run, Lola, Run; The Princess Warrior; Psycho

Click here to listen to clips of Tom Tykwer's interview.