Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Opens Friday in select theaters

Patrick Süskind’s 1986 novel Perfume has been a hot property for years. This portrait of a homicidally alienated individual was a favorite of Kurt Cobain, who based the song “Scentless Apprentice” on Nirvana’s In Utero album on Grenouille. On the other hand, Stanley Kubrick is said to have considered Perfume: The Story of a Murderer “unfilmable.”

Take a moment to consider that the man offering this opinion is the director of such macabre literary adaptations as A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

The project has now come to fruition in the hands of Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer, and the result is one of those horribly unpleasant film experiences in which you almost find yourself banging your head against the back of the theater chair at how mind-bogglingly miscalculated the whole thing is.

Süskind’s novel, a huge critical and popular success both in its native Germany and around the world, is a magical-realism piece set in 18th-century France dealing with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the last name, literally translated, means “frog”), a strange, mutant outcast. Born in the filth of a public fish market in a stomach-churning sequence, young Grenouille has a superhuman sense of smell, able to identify the most obscure essences with his eyes closed.

An outcast, Grenouille (played as an adult by C. Thomas Howell look-alike Ben Whishaw) becomes obsessed with capturing and preserving smells, which leads him to Baldini, a perfumer played by a hammed-up Dustin Hoffman. This in turn leads to him trying to preserve the smells of pretty girls, which he does by … well, see the title. It all ends in a climax that, when translated from the page to the screen, is … well, like something out of Caligula.

One of the key points of the book is that Grenouille, despite having a superhuman sense of smell, has no smell of his own, thus placing him apart from other humans. This is hard enough to convey on screen, but it’s only mentioned briefly in the film, in the voice-over narration by John Hurt (who also narrated Dogville, another offbeat-but-unpleasant experience). The film also fails to capture Grenouille’s physical deformity; Whishaw is, at best, a slightly dirty, lanky type, and rarely looks like anything more than a slightly dazed hunk smeared in filth.

While the film devotes most of its two hours and 27 minutes to recounting the bulk of the book’s story, it doesn’t quite capture its tone. In Tykwer’s hands, the absurdist elements, such as the terrible tragedies befalling those whom Grenouille touches, come across more as absurd slapstick than dark fairy-tale touches. This also makes Grenouille’s eventual Son-of-Sam-meets-Toucan-Sam killing spree seem like a weird, unpleasant shift in tone. Instead of feeling like a picaresque tale gone very, very wrong, it feels like a horror movie has intruded into another story, slowing down the action and grinding the story to a halt. It’s acceptable to have an amoral, murderous protagonist in a film, but this part of the story goes on too long and focuses more on Alan Rickman’s characer (the father of one of Grenouille’s potential victims), leaving you to stare at your watch and wonder how many more nude corpses can appear on screen.

Perfume apparently is the most expensive German film ever made, costing 50 million Euros (close to $64 million), and indeed, the sets and location shooting are gorgeous. European audiences have responded to the film, but it’s hard to fathom who the American market for this is. Still, you have to give Tykwer credit for having the chutzpah to film the climax in all of its demented glory.

If you can make it through Perfume, you’ll probably find yourself wondering what the point of all that wasand coming to the conclusion that Kubrick was right.