Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer, and Patrick Süskind, 2006

Like most babies smell like butter
His smell smelled like no other
He was born scentless and senseless
He was born a scentless apprentice

Premise in non-lyrical form
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a physically, intellectually and emotionally stunted orphan in 18th-century France, has the finest sense of smell in human history. Obsessed with the desire to capture as a perfume the most glorious scent in the world, he works his way from a Paris tannery up to the center of the perfume industry, the town of Grasse. There he learns how to capture the essence of the flowers in the surrounding fields. Unfortunately the most glorious scent on earth does not come from any flower but from certain redheaded maidens.

Here is a movie based on a book I have read many times. I picked it up back in '93 after reading that it was Kurt Cobain's favorite book. It's easy to see why it was. The main character is rejected by everyone he encounters from a very early age, and in turn flees for a time as far away from the scent of human as he can get, but eventually uses his miraculous, often painful sensitivity to create a masterpiece that brings him immediate adulation — yet once he's done so and fulfilled his dream, he finds it deeply unsatisfying and gives up on life. Sound like anyone you know?

Some reviewers have argued that the book was unfilmable, but it's really no more unfilmable than it was unwriteable. Yes, a medium that relies on images and sounds cannot really convey smell. But neither can prose. We don't have a vocabulary for scent. All a writer can do is name an object and hope the reader knows what it smells like. A movie can at least use other sense data as an analogue for scent. For the most glorious scent on earth we get an eerie soprano voice on the soundtrack when it's nearby and visually beautiful girls as the source. Also many shots of nostrils. As for the rest, the movie is extremely faithful to the book, essentially filming it page by page, with the dialogue and voiceover narration reciting much of the English translation word for word to make up for the loss of interiority inherent when the audience is couched in a camera looking at Grenouille instead of inside his mind. It seems that most every flourish, right down to everything going bright when the last girl's body is discovered, is taken directly from the book. So I can't say that this movie evoked much of a reaction from me. It felt like yet another reread. Different schools of thought may take that as criticism or as high praise.

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