Friday, September 08, 2006

Film and the sense of smell

Jess Smee at the Guardian on the big-budget film adaptation of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume:

However it remains to be seen whether the film can replicate the key to the book's success: its ability to conjure up smell.

Born without a personal odour, Grenouille is obsessed with creating a perfect smell for himself, an olfactory mission which impels him to murder virgins for their scent. Süskind's descriptions dwell on the stench of the fish market and pungent Parisian alleys.

The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, the man behind the controversial Hitler film Downfall, said the film aims to bring smell to celluloid by imitating the author's attention to detail. "While Süskind used the clear and exact power of words, we use the power of image, noise and music," he said. "When filming a lawn in sunlight, or even a single tree, all that is needed is absolute optical precision and then smells are created."

But although German film critics praised the costumes and acting, many argued that the film fell short of conveying the sense of smell. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said it did not match up to the book and "in the end failed to emerge as the orgasm of a film it wanted to be". Meanwhile, Die Zeit weekly ridiculed the film as "big nose theatre", saying it rather obviously tried to convey smell through close-up shots of the protagonist's nose - of which there were no less than 27.


I have not revisited Perfume since I was a teenager, but it was certainly one of those books that transformed my sense of what could be done in the form of the novel--in fact it was almost certainly one of the most important models for my own first novel, though I can't say the end product has much in common with it. (The comparison, in fact, is greatly to my disadvantage.)

Interesting, though, to think about smell and film--in the 1930s (think Huxley's Brave New World) it seemed to lots of observers that having added sound to its basic visual repertoire film's next new thing would be lots of multi-sensory stimulation ("the feelies"); now it seems much less likely/imminent, but in any case I do not think that I would like to go to an artistic spectacle that manipulated me by way of smell, I have an overly sensitive sense of smell....

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