Tom Tykwer's challenges

Collecting smells
In "Perfume," newcomer Ben Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man blessed and cursed with a superhuman sense of smell.
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures

"Perfume" is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan scrabbling to survive on the filthy, merciless streets of 1750s Paris.

He looks undistinguished but he has an extraordinary talent: a superhuman sense of smell. His nose is so sensitive he can detect sun-warmed stones miles away and even sniff out tadpoles deep in a pond.

Whishaw and Tykwer
Ben Whishaw and Tom Tykwer on the set of "Perfume"
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Jean-Baptiste learns the art of perfume-making, creating scents that enrapture the French nobility. But there is a dark side. He tries to create the scent of love.

His obsession leads to murder.

Originally published in German in 1985, "Perfume" became an international literary sensation through its blend of art and horror.

Many producers wanted the film rights but the notoriously reclusive author Patrick Suskind steadfastly refused to sell. The New York Times reported Suskind declared he wanted either Stanley Kubrick to make the film or "Amadeus" director Milos Forman.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Forman wasn't interested. Kubrick was, but decided the story was unfilmable. Then he died.

It seemed Suskind's demands meant "Perfume" would never make the screen.

"You know, if it worked in the novel, it was obviously an achievement of the language, because I've always said, 'Well, the book doesn't smell does it?'"

Tom Tykwer is not convinced

"I don't know. He never confirmed that to me," he says.

Tom Tykwer is best known in the U.S. for his cult film "Run Lola Run." Suskind's friend, veteran producer Berndt Eichinger, had worked on a "Perfume" screenplay for years, and Tykwer says Suskind finally relented.

"I think ultimately he just gave up in being much involved in it. I met him of course and he gave me this, kind of, very nice short impression of 'I wish you all the best, but just leave me alone,'" Tykwer laughs.

Now Tykwer faced that other huge problem: how do you film a story about smell?

"You shouldn't use 'Scratch and Sniff,'" he says.

All joking aside, Tykwer had to find a way to draw audiences into Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's smell-dominated world.

"You know, if it worked in the novel, it was obviously an achievement of the language, because I've always said, 'Well, the book doesn't smell does it?'"

Tom Tykwer directs a scene from "Perfume."
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The trick was to find an equally effective cinematic language. Tykwer plunges into close-ups of the tiny things grabbing Jean-Baptiste's attention, from the garbage in an open air fishmarket to the thousands of tiny vials in a parfumier's workshop, and the scent of freckles on a young woman's skin.

"His nose greedily picks up on any kind of detail around him," Tykwer says. "He can smell everything from far distances. So the camera was picking up on the speed of his nose connecting with items and things around him."

Tom Tykwer now faced one more challenge: how to portray Grenouille himself. He is an extraordinary figure, but ultimately he's a monster who kills women to make his scent.

"We needed to get across that his way of approaching the murders is not because he enjoys killing, or something like that," he says, "but because he is a collector of beauty. And with an artist's obsessiveness he pursues a goal that makes him kind of block out certain moral rules and issues."

Tykwer says the film is not misogynistic, but an examination of human beings' desperate attempts to connect with each other and all the difficulties people experience as a result.

Shot in English, "Perfume" is the most expensive German film ever made. It premiered at the Munich Film Festival in September to mixed reviews. Some critics love it. Others describe it as an embarrassing holdover from the '80s.

With the film now going on wide release in the U.S., Tom Tykwer's latest challenge will be to win over American audiences.