PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER directed by Tom Tykwer, written by Tykwer, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger from the novel by Patrick Süskind, with Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman. A Paramount Pictures release. 147 minutes. Opens Friday (January 5). For venues and times, see Movies, page 66. Rating: NNNN
New Bond Daniel Craig is chatting with Regis and Kelly on the hotel room TV, and I've just asked his Layer Cake co-star Ben Whishaw what kind of cologne Whishaw wears.
I've never asked such a question before who cares what he splashes on to feel more attractive? but it seems an obvious icebreaker given the circumstance.
Whishaw is all of 26 and a veteran of the London stage. Within six months of graduating from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he was playing Hamlet at the famed Old Vic, where Perfume director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) discovered him.
Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer is based on reclusive German author Patrick Süskind's seductive bestseller about a scent-obsessed serial killer in 18th-century Paris the smelliest city in the smelliest time period in recorded history, by Süskind's estimate.
The book and film concern Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, whom Süskind describes as "one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages." Born among rotting fish guts to a diseased fishmonger of a mother, the outcast Grenouille possesses a preternatural sense of smell through which he experiences the world around him.
But Grenouille has no scent himself, and as a result, no sense of who he is. Believing his lack of odour causes others to ignore or dismiss him, he sets about creating the perfect perfume, one that will compel people to revere him and one that requires him to distill the olfactory essence of virgin girls.
He is remorseless, irredeemable and unsympathetic, yet Whishaw, naturally, sees something more substantial in the character.
"I always felt there was something behind, something below the smelling that was the core of the character. There's a sort of need that's driving him, which is the thing that makes him human and perhaps understandable or even sympathetic," he says.
"Of course, he's a murderer and an artist. He's childlike and also like an old man, and he's like an animal, but there's something ethereal about him."
Whishaw is similarly ethereal. With his thick swoop of dark hair, a strong brow over inquisitive eyes and pale, androgenous features, he could be 17 or 37. As he speaks, his slender fingers pick at the air as though sifting for answers, and he stammers occasionally as if his thoughts need to build to a critical mass before they find expression.
"I think in a way, much like Hamlet, he is having an existential crisis," Whishaw continues. "There is this void inside him, an emptiness. It seems a strange thing to say, but there's something pure in his simplicity: there's something that he wants, and like an animal, he goes to get it. He's complicated and extremely simple at the same time."
The novel has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1985 and has sustained a cult reputation it inspired the Nirvana song Scentless Apprentice as well the title of Marilyn Manson's Smells Like Children album. But Süskind long refused to sell the film rights, holding out hope that either Stanley Kubrick or Milos Forman would show an interest. Two years ago he finally granted Tykwer, a fellow German, permission to make it.
"It took almost as long to get the rights as it took Tom to convince people it was a good idea to cast someone no one had ever heard of as Grenouille," Whishaw says sheepishly.
Playing in what is essentially a character study both Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman have small roles, yet Whishaw carries almost every scene in near silence he admits to having had a nasty case of nerves.
"It hit me just before we started, and I got really ill. We had this little pre-shoot in the south of France and I couldn't get out of bed because my stomach...," Whishaw makes a growling, gurgling noise and scrunches his fists into tight little balls. "It suddenly hit me what we were embarking on."
Our interview over, Whishaw rises to leave. He wears Comme des Garçons, by the way.
"I'm not really big into cologne but I got this as a Christmas present."
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (Tom Tykwer) Rating: NNNN
Not since Hannibal Lecter first caught a whiff of Clarice Starling's Evian skin cream and a lingering hint of L'Air du Temps has such a compelling and repellent sociopath stalked the big screen.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, possessed of a sense of smell as acute as any canine's but having no scent of his own, sets out to create the perfect perfume by squeezing the juices from hot 18th-century French girls. The film is richly photographed - you can almost smell the flowers and blood and rotting fish seeping through the celluloid - and stars unknown Ben Whishaw in a mesmerizing, cool and creepy performance that that will put more than a few noses out of joint.
The ending is as bizarre as it is spellbinding.