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Perfume is no stinker! Read on:

Cinema was designed to appeal to certain senses, our visual capacities most obviously. Eventually, audiences were able to savor the deep hues that resulted from technical leaps like Technicolor and, of course, our aural sensibilities were also soon challenged with the advent of sound. But despite the attempts of lower-end Hollywood hucksters to further broaden cinema’s ability to play on our sensations (with processes like Smell-O-Vision, for example), the other senses — taste, touch, and smell — have yet to be cracked at the movies.

And that no doubt served as one of director Tom Tykwer’s greatest challenges when adapting for the screen, along with his fellow scripters Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger, Patrick Süskind’s bestselling 1985 novel Das Parfum. Just how do you get across that sensation of smell, of scent, of odiferous odor, of amoral aroma that is so important to the central character of this tale? Interestingly, Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) manages to achieve this goal, more or less, through his use of those very same elements that have been available to filmmakers for decades: color, sound, and even editing.

Unknown actor Ben Whishaw stars as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in this internationally produced, English language picture (which is receiving a limited theatrical run in the U.S. courtesy of DreamWorks). The story of Jean-Baptiste, from birth to death, begins in 18th century Paris, where his mother literally gives birth to him while working at a fish market in a particularly heinous and poverty-stricken part of town. This early scene in the film, with the dirty, hateful mother laying among the detritus of the market — fish heads and guts and the such – as the child is born, and just as quickly discarded, is the first indication of how the director is going to be conveying the smells of the film. Quick cuts to the various sights that surround the abandoned infant — in this case, all of the grotesque variety — practically make the viewer think they can whiff rotten fish in the theater.

The reason why smell plays so importantly in the story goes beyond the title of the film. As Jean-Baptiste grows to adulthood in a very tough existence that sees him narrowly avert another attempt on his life in an orphanage, only to then be sold into servitude in the harsh trade of a tannery, we learn that his nose knows no bounds. It is the chief instrument by which he navigates through life, and apparently the only way he can enjoy reality. Let’s put it this way: If he were in the X-Men, his mutant power would be super-sniffery.

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