Language: German with audio options and English subtitles
A cop desperate to regain his sense of smell is ready to take the help of a mysterious perfumer, whose obsession with creating the perfect perfume will drive him to any extreme. Writer-director Nils Willbrandt’s German thriller, titled Der Parfumeur in the original language, is inspired by Patrick Suskind’s classic fantasy novel Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, which has already seen several adaptations on big and small screens, including Tom Tykwer’s 2006 psychological thriller of the same name and the 2018 streaming series Perfume starring Friederike Becht.
Willbrandt and co-writer Kim Zimmermann drew more directly from the 2018 series than from Suskind’s novel. Since Le Parfumeur tells more or less the same story in 96 minutes as the series did with a lot more nuance over six episodes, you wonder if the film was necessary and, more importantly, why was it dropped on the same OTT platform where the series is available in India.
The challenge for a filmmaker adapting a novel is often to judge how much of the book’s tone he should retain for the screen and how far he should stray from it to create an idiom suitable for the visual medium. Suskind’s original work had a deeply introspective tone, with character-defining psychological undercurrents and suspenseful drama. This would have made exact reproduction on film difficult. While Parfum the series used its many runtime episodes to impressively explore the idea of the story, Le Parfumeur is far less notable as it contains a half-baked plot and unconvincing protagonists in its execution. The film fails to recreate the gripping dark vibes of the source material and struggles to balance suspenseful drama with the raw emotions that underpinned the novel.
Willbrandt and Zimmermann also try to add novelty by looking at the heavily filmed story through the gaze of the protagonist cop rather than the perspective of the antagonistic perfumer. The idea boomerangs because it robs the story of its sinister side, which was to unravel the mind of a master criminal. While the screenwriting duo focuses too much on the police detective, who appears in the film simply as Sunny, the titular perfumer is left behind.
A serial killer is on the loose and Sunny (Emilia Schule) is solving the case as she doesn’t mope about her anosmia, which is so acute she can swallow a tall glass of sugar-laden schnapps extra, strawberries and tangerine in one sip without feeling anything. Sunny’s love life isn’t happy either. She has an affair with her colleague Juro (Robert Finster), a married man with two children. Probably because the original story is only too well known, the scenario avoids wasting a lot of time revealing the identity of the killer, which, in any case, is not the point of the story. The culprit is a young perfumer named Dorian (Ludwig Simon) and the murders are rooted in his obsession with procuring raw materials to create the perfect perfume. Sunny is drawn into the dark world of Dorian when she discovers his amazing talent. She begins to realize that he might be her only hope of regaining her lost sense of smell.
The films start off on an interesting note before losing the audience’s attention due to slow storytelling. The lack of urgency is a major setback because it means you invariably start to figure out most plot twists long before they actually happen. Sunny becomes pregnant at one point, for example, and the resulting turn of events is hardly surprising. The lazy pacing also affects attempts to return an emotional core to the story because boredom outweighs any intention to infuse sensibility. Sunny’s soliloquy about a baby’s scent being a form of chemical communication between mother and child is meant to convey to you her sadness at not being able to connect with the child when it’s born. Instead, lackluster dialogue and scene execution leave you indifferent.
Willbrandt and Zimmermann actually exaggerated the use of soliloquies. Throughout the film, Sunny is constantly in first-person voice-over mode, spelling out details about her state of mind, her observation of things, mostly talking to her unborn child. The idea was perhaps to capture the introspective structure of the novel. The bursts of storytelling, however, only serve to prevent continued plot movement, which would be necessary to maintain audience interest.
The Perfumer also wants to be in love, because Sunny is constantly looking for a sense of belonging to escape her innate loneliness. We learn that she had a neglected childhood, the psychological impact of which explains her loss of smell. Somehow, she also subconsciously blames her sensory deficiency for the failures in her love life. Dorian, too, is in search of the essence of love because he is convinced that love in its purest form is the only ingredient that can bring the perfect perfume to life. The emotional play triggered by these characters could have added to the drama, but the script fails to create a single poignant moment using them.
The essentially fantasy tale has an element of magic about it. Dorian talks about cedarwood, ammonia, oxblood, and thyme as important ingredients in creating his dream scent. He can smell Sunny’s pregnancy week correctly and talks about six basic scents in the world and how all the scents that exist are basically combinations of these. Yet Willbrandt’s direction fails to bring this enchanting aspect of the story to life. The mood darkens a few shades after the halfway point, but the narrative just can’t shake the boredom. There is no smoldering impact from being lifeless, such directorial execution only affects characterization. In turn, almost all the actors look annoyed with everything that’s going on.
“Smells are feelings, memories,” Dorian tells Sunny as his olfactory senses feel nothing. The movie has that kind of impact on all of your senses. It doesn’t let you feel anything.
Rating: * * (two stars)
Vinayak Chakravorty is a Delhi-NCR based film critic, columnist and journalist.