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‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’s Ben Whishaw Is Ready to Smell Success

Adapted from the novel of the same name, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer owes much of its sensibility to the lead actor, English-born Ben Whishaw (Stoned, Layer Cake), who plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a true product of his environment with a name that almost smells like a pungent cheese (an effect most likely intended by the original creator, French novelist Patrick Suskind). Not since the Oscar-winner Adrien Brody bedazzled audiences with his portrayal of the tortured artist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who found hope in utter hopelessness in The Pianist, has a young actor been better suited for a role, not only physically with his waifish presence and hollow eyes but also spiritually.

“I had that feeling that I’m the only person that understands what this character is about,” says Whishaw of the dark ambivalent Grenouille. “I felt like a real personal kind of connection with it—in a sense. That’s the sort of thing that you always look for—some kind of area where you and the person you’re playing meet. And that was really obvious to me with this character—strange as that may sound. Anything that feels like a real reach or something that is risky, is always appealing.”

Whishaw, who started acting at 14, had by 23 made his mark on the English stage with his unique portrayal of Hamlet. His soft intonations and thin disposition, Whishaw glides through the film like so many different butterfly literary allusions, searching for the meaning of life while armed with an uncanny sense of smell (however, ironically, he has no odor of his own). Such as the story demands he becomes a new existential stranger melding perfectly into director Tykwer (Run Lola Run)’s dank yet frighteningly real recreation of 18th Century Parisian destitution and stink. Thus, Whishaw was born for this role.

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“The film was ‘unfilmable’ if you don’t feel like you’ve got the actor that can deliver the complexity,” explains Tykwer. “And, of course, the contradictory energies of this protagonist…he’s of course very dark and scary and at the same time there’s something innocent and boyish about him and that’s all what Ben had.”

Despite the obvious references to Dickens, Shakespeare and Camus (to name a few), Grenouille is an amalgamation, if you will, of many complex, seminal literally characters throughout history, something of which is clearly evident in Tykwer’s directing as well as Whishaw’s verisimilitude. But surprisingly Whishaw humbly credits Tykwer as being the true professor and himself merely an unconscious player. “Tom was much more conscious of those things,” he says. “Like the kind of echoes of other literary characters, sort of Frankenstein, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula and all of those—even The Stranger—it’s very much like that.”

Adds Tykwer: “Ben understood so much about this character. I had discovered him on stage. I had been sent to see a stage production of Hamlet in London at the Old Vic, and he was a 23-year-old doing Hamlet in a way that I had never seen Hamlet. It was so different and so wonderfully modern and peculiar and physically unusual…this Ferrell quality about his acting that I find completely rare to find—actually impossible to find. There was no one even close to his quality.”

Although as the viewer we are expected to feel sympathy and, at times, even empathy for young Grenouille–who, a victim from the start, was born literally atop rotting fish guts then left to die (a visual one can almost smell onscreen)–somehow, almost prophetically, via a need to discover every existing earthly smell, he survives years of torture and torment in subhuman conditions. As the audience roots and hopes for the fragile Grenouille, he flip-flops into a cold-blooded killer. “The problem with the character is you want to have somebody you feel attached with and you want to have a hero,” explains Tykwer. “But, at the same time—you have to stay with him through the whole film even though he starts killing people…and there aren’t’ very many examples in literature. But literature has a different set of rules.”

“It’s a sort of tricky area, this issue of sympathy for a character,” agrees Whishaw on the complexities of successfully portraying an anti-hero without moral dilemma. “Because, sometimes if you try and make a character very sympathetic you achieve the opposite, it’s sort of slightly—if you try too hard to ingratiate a character to an audience it can be off-putting, so although it’s something we were always talking about, it’s sort of at the same time, you just have to try and understand that person and why that person behaves in that way and then hope that people will feel some kind…I think that’s absolutely one of the things I really like is that on one level he’s very, very sensitive and on another completely—he’s just a void, a complete abyss—there’s nothing going on at all. I think it really speaks to the world we live in somehow.”

Moreover, it is impossible to talk about the film without mentioning something of the soon-to-be legendary orgy scene that takes place in the film—something of which has never been done on such a magnificent scale. Filmed over seven days in Barcelona, Spain, with over 750 extras and a final product of 24 hours of footage (DVD extras!), Whishaw found himself standing before a sea of naked bodies simulating sexual desire while trying to maintain his professionalism. “Well, it started off being quite awkward,” coyly recalls Whishaw. “Because it’s kind of an extremely strange situation you find yourself in and you don’t quite know where to let your eyes rest…you know, you don’t know where to look. But, after a while, I guess because the extras were so open about it, and embraced what they were doing so totally, that actually it came to be really quite beautiful, and I think everyone felt that—people in the crew as well, were really quite touched by the whole thing. It was really, really touching.”

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Given the complexities of the role, Whishaw seems to have no difficulty in delivering the goods, even going line for line with two of Hollywood’s biggest names (and costars in the film) Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman. Even here, Whishaw seemed practically at ease, a total natural with two of his heroes, proving that is just the beginning of what is to come for young Whishaw, who clearly audiences will find to be a fresh new addition to the world of acting, bringing a much needed organic talent to the screen.

For Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is today’s Frankenstein and even more so, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, at times crying “yes, master, please master, you must help me,” successfully strumming that subtle chord of emotion in viewers—and doing it with a soft Cockney accent that of one of Fagan’s boys in Dickens’ Oliver Twist—and then selfishly and quite brutally, taking it back, leaving not one but two devils on our shoulders. It’ll be a treat to follow Whishaw’s career as he will next take on a young Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine)’s I’m Not There.

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