Sunday, 29 November 2009

Smells All Right, I Guess.

Adapting novels to the screen is always tricky business. What do you cut? What do you leave in? How do you portray in vision what the writer can take pages to describe in words, freezing time as they focus on the tiniest little detail?

Then again, adapting a novel where the overriding theme relates to another sense, smell, is always going to be even trickier. How on earth do you portray smell? Heighten colours? Really hammer home the production design? Introduce smell-o-vision into hundreds or thousands of screens?

Tom Tykwer (who did the fabulous Run, Lola, Run) decided to tackle the Patrick Süskind's book Perfume (co-writing and directing), where the main character is primarily notable for his incredible sense of smell and his desire to create the one greatest perfume. It is an admirable attempt. I liked the book when I read it a few years ago, I really felt that I could smell what the lead character (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) was smelling, seeing, feeling. It was beautifully written to really wrap you up in the odours of the environment surrounding him.

Kudos to Tykwer, but it didn't really happen. And I think the biggest problem is that inability to truly affect any senses other than the optical and aural. You can't portray smell, and without the descriptions of the smells and what they are doing to Grenouille you just can't really get absorbed in his story. Ben Whishaw plays Grenouille admirably, really doing everything he can to put into his face, his voice, his actions everything Süskind had hours to do on paper. Intellectually, I think you can, in a respect, understand what Grenouille is going through, but it doesn't hit home emotionally because you just. Can't. Smell. Film. You can't. And that was always going to be the failing.

Look, it looked good, it sounded good, the performances were pretty good (and whilst I did just praise Whishaw, I felt his performance sometimes hammed up and caricatured a little - but then again, maybe if you could have smelt him it wouldn't have been necessary), but it just didn't feel. It didn't feel.

I do, however, respect the valiant effort. I think they did as well as anyone really could have done. But I also think maybe nobody should have tried. You can make a film about how, say, the touch of velvet against the skin can drive someone crazy, because we all pretty much know what velvet feels like. Even if it doesn't drive you crazy, you at least have a launching point. When Grenouille talks about the smell of glass, however, no one out there can touch it (no pun intended.) Glass? Smell? Nope. Hits nothing inside me. Sorry.

Having said that, I was never bored, but I also think that may be because I might be developing a crush on Whishaw (who I saw only a couple of weeks ago in Bright Star.) It wasn't that bad. It just wasn't that good.

Points for trying. 2.5 stars.

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