The Perfumier film review: Sluggish crime thriller reeks of boredom
Half-baked plot and unconvincing protagonists let down interesting source material drawn from literature
Language: German with English audio and subtitle options
A cop desperate to regain her sense of smell is willing to take the help of a mysterious perfume maker, whose obsession to create the perfect scent will drive him to any extreme. Writer-director Nils Willbrandt’s German thriller, titled Der Parfumeur in original language, draws influence from Patrick Suskind’s classic fantasy novel, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, which has already seen several adaptations on screens big and small, notably 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 have drawn a more direct inspiration from the 2018 series than Suskind’s novel. Since The Perfumier narrates more or less the same story in 96 minutes that the series did with far more nuances over six episodes, you wonder if the film was necessary at all and, importantly, whyever was it dropped on the same OTT platform where the series is available in India.
The challenge for a filmmaker adapting a novel often lies in judging how much of the book’s tone he must retain for the screen and to what extent he must move away to create an idiom suitable for the visual medium. Suskind’s original work was deeply introspective in tone, with psychological undercurrents defining the characters and suspense drama. This would have made it tough to replicate in an exact manner on film. While Perfume the series used its ample runtime spanning episodes to impressively explore the story idea, The Perfumier is far less remarkable as it packs a half-baked plot and unconvincing protagonists within its runtime. The film fails to recreate the arresting dark vibes of the source material and struggles to balance the suspense drama with the raw emotions that buoyed the novel.
Willbrandt and Zimmermann also try adding novelty by looking at the much-filmed story through the protagonist cop’s gaze rather than the antagonist perfumier’s perspective. The idea boomerangs because it robs the story of its sinister edge, which lay in unravelling the mind of a master criminal. As the screenwriter duo focusses too much on the female police detective, who goes in the film simply as Sunny, the titular perfumier is left in the cold.
A serial killer is on the loose and Sunny (Emilia Schule) is out cracking the case when she isn’t moping over her anosmia, which is so acute that she can down a tall glass of Schnapps loaded with extra sugar, strawberries and tangerine in a single gulp without sensing anything. Sunny’s love life isn’t a happy one either. She’s having an affair with her colleague Juro (Robert Finster), a married man with two kids. Probably since the original tale is only too well known, the screenplay avoids wasting much time in revealing the identity of the killer, which, anyway, is not the point of the story. The culprit is a young perfume maker named Dorian (Ludwig Simon) and the killings are rooted in his obsession to source raw material to create the perfect scent. Sunny is drawn into Dorian’s dark world when she discovers his astonishing talent. She begins to realise he could be her only hope at regaining her lost sense of smell.
The films starts on an interesting note before losing grip of audience attention owing to sluggish storytelling. The lack of urgency is a major setback because it means you invariably start figuring out most of the twists much before they actually unfold. Sunny becomes pregnant at one point, for instance, and the resultant turn of events is hardly surprising. The lazy pace also affects attempts at rendering an emotional core to the story because boredom trounces all intention to infuse sensitivity. Sunny’s soliloquy about a baby’s smell being a form of chemical communication between mother and child is supposed to make you relate to her sadness at not being able to connect with the child when it is born. Instead, lacklustre dialogues and execution of the scene leaves you indifferent.
Willbrandt and Zimmermann have, in fact, overdone the use of soliloquies. All through the film, Sunny is constantly in first-person voiceover mode, spelling out details about her state of mind, her observation of things, mostly talking to her unborn child. The idea perhaps was to capture the introspective structure of the novel. The bursts of narration, however, only serve to prevent seamless plot movement, which would be necessary to sustain audience interest.
The Perfumier is meant to be of love, too, because Sunny constantly searches for a sense of belonging to escape her innate loneliness. We get to know she has had a neglected childhood, the psychological impact of which accounts for her loss of smell. Somewhere, she also subconsciously blames her sensory shortcoming for failures in her love life. Dorian, too, is searching for the essence of love because he is convinced love in its purest form is the only ingredient that can give life to the perfect scent. The play of emotions triggered by these characters could have added to the drama, but the screenplay fails to create a single poignant moment using these.
The essentially fantastical tale has an element of the magical about it. Dorian talks of cedar wood, ammonia, ox blood and thyme as being important ingredients to create his scent of dreams. He can smell correctly which week of pregnancy Sunny is in and talks of six basic scents in the world and how all smells that exist are basically combinations of these. Yet, Willbrandt’s direction misses out on bringing alive that enchanting aspect of the story. The mood gets a few shades darker post the halfway mark but the narrative simply cannot rid itself of tedium. There is no slow burn impact in being lifeless, rather such directorial execution only affects characterisation. In turn, almost every actor looks bored with all that goes on.
“Smells are feelings, memories,” Dorian tells Sunny as her olfactory senses feel nothing. The film has that sort of an impact on all your senses. It leaves you feeling nothing.
Rating: * * (two stars)
Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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