The film in set in the 18th century. First we see a young man in a prison cell and there is a bunch of people screaming outside. The guards then take him to the balcony where they announce that he will be executed be being tied down on a cross and being beaten in 12 places and then left until he's dead. They also announce that there will be no mercy for the man. The crowd is screaming for his death.
The film then cuts to Paris. A pregnant woman is selling fish in a fish market that must be the foulest smelling area in the city. She goes into labor and lets her baby drop on the ground under her table, assuming that her baby is dead because she's lost four babies before this one. However, the baby lives and when people see it lying under the table, they believe she tried to kill her own baby and they have her executed. The baby is Jean-Baptiste Grenouillle. He gets sent to an orphanage where all the children dislike him and even try to kill him.
We then jump ahead to Grenouille at age five where we see that he has an unusual ability to smell everything. He can smell rocks, water, trees, etc. even if they're far away. He loves to discover new smells. When he turns 13, the woman who runs the orphanage decides to sell him to a tannery. He works there for many years.
As an adult (played be Ben Whishaw) he is taken into the city to help make a delivery for the tannery and is excited by all of the new scents. He slips away from his boss and stops in front of a perfume shop where he gets excited by the new scents and notices everyone getting excited about a new perfume called "Amor et psychie" (not sure about the spelling).
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He then notices a pretty young redhead who is selling plums. He loves the way she smells and follows her through the city. Eventually she stops in a back alley and he sneaks up on her so that he can smell her. She sees him and starts to scream so he covers her mouth and nose to stop her from screaming. He ends up killing her. After she dies, he continues to smell her, but becomes upset because he can't keep her scent and take it with him. He then decides that he must learn how to do this.
We then meet Giuseppe Baldini(Dustin Hoffman). He owns a perfume shop that sits in a rickety building on a bridge in Paris. He used to be a great perfume maker but is now forgotten. He's been trying to make a new scent. He goes to his work area and we see that he's been studying Amor et psychie, the perfume made by his competitor, trying to figure out what ingredients are in it. He is able to smell orange blossoms and a few other scents, but can't figure out all of them. That night, Grenouille makes a delivery to his perfume shop and Baldini leads him down into the basement to drop off the skins. There Baldini keeps all of the oils and ingredients he uses to mix perfumes. Grenouille notices that he smells like "Amor et Psychie" and then is able to quickly tell him what ingredients are in it. Baldini isn't too impressed so he challenges Grenouille to make a copy of Amor et Psychie using the ingredients in the basement, which he quickly does. He then says he can make it better, and adds a few more ingredients. He then asks Baldini to smell it and ask to come and work for him so that he can learn hot to make scented oils. After Baldini tells Grenouille to leave, he smells the new mixture and realizes that it is incredible. He then goes to the tannery and buys Grenouille so that he can make perfumes for him. Because of Grenouille's new perfumes, his shop quickly becomes a success again.
He then begins to teach Grenouille about making perfumes. He teaches that each perfume has twelve different oils/scents in it. He also teaches a legend about a 13th scent that can be added to perfumes. If one can find the right 13th scent and put them all in the right balance, the perfume can be sublime. He teaches Grenouille how to make a scented oil from rose petals using a machine that involves boiling the petals in water and then condensing the scented oil. Grenouille then tries to do this with objects her finds on the ground, like glass, iron and even a dead cat, and Baldini tells them that you can't capture scents from things like these. Grenouille quickly becomes sick because he is so upset, and he asks if someone in Grasse, a city in France devoted to perfume making, would know how to capture scents?? Baldini says probably, yes. He then arranges travel papers for Grenouille so that he can go to Grasse in exchange for recipes for 100 different perfumes. After Grenouille leaves, the building he lives in collapses and Baldini dies.
On the way to Grasse, Grenouille stops in a cave where there are almost no scents. While staying there he realizes something about himself. He has absolutely no body odor/scent. He's never noticed before because he always lived in a smelly city with smelly clothes. He travels on to Grasse and on the way, sees a red-haired girl (Rachel Hurd-Wood) travel by in a coach and loves her scent. He follows her into the city and discovers that her name is Laura and she is the daughter of a nobleman named Antoine Richis(played by Alan Rickman) and lives in a mansion. He gets a job with a woman who makes scented oils from all the flowers that grow around the city. He learns another process of capturing scents, which involves heating flowers in a large vat of water/animal fat. He kills a peasant girl so that he can try to capture her scent by putting her in the big vat, but is doesn't work. He then gets a prostitute and figures out how to capture her scent by wrapping her body with cloth soaked in animal fat so that the fat can absorb her scent. He also cuts off her hair and wraps it in cloth as well. He then scrapes the fat off of the body and hair and heats the fat and the scented oil condenses out of the fat. He tests it by placing her scented oil on his skin and then seeing if her pet dog responds to the scent, which it does.
He heads to Laura's home where they are having a party. Everyone tries to play hide and seek in the large maze next to the house. Grenouille tries to capture Laura, but can't, and instead kidnaps and kills two twin girls from the party. He captures their scents and now has scents #1 and #2 for his set of twelve oils.
Their bodies are discovered in the river, and all the noblemen convene to figure out how to capture him. They are ineffective and he continues to kill other women throughout the city, eventually getting all twelve oils, but he still wants to get Laura's scent as the special 13th scent. Suddenly, a killer from another town confesses to the murders in Grasse, and everyone is happy that the killer was found. However Antoine points out that this man can't be the killer because he claims to have raped the women and pulled out their hair, when in fact they weren't raped and their hair was carefully cut off. That night, Grenouille sneaks into Antoine's home, but doesn't kill Laura. Anotine becomes scared and sneaks her out of the city, having his carriage go in one direction while he and his daughter go in another direction on horseback. Grenouille wakes up and realizes that she's left because he can no longer smell her in the city. He uses his nose to track them down. After Grenouille leaves the city, the prostitute's dog sniffs around the workshop where he worked and digs up the prostitute's clothes which are buried there. The townspeople eventually dig up the clothes and hair belonging to some of the victims.
That night, Antoine and Laura stop at an inn to rest for the night. Antoine then tells Laura that he's going to have her married to a nobleman she doesn't love for her own protection. After everyone falls asleep, Grenouille sneaks into the inn and sneaks into Laura's bedroom. The next morning, Anotine discovers Laura's body. He kills her and cuts off her hair like all the others. He stops somewhere in the countryside and finishes his perfume after adding her scent. Just as he finishes, he is arrested.
We then cut ahead to Grenouille in prison as he's about to be taken to the execution site. He has a vial of his special perfume hidden in his cell. However, right after the guards start to beat him, he opens his vial of perfume. They smell it and stop. We then go to execution site where the entire town is waiting to watch it. The people are screaming for his blood. However, he arrives is an expensive carriage and dressed in beautiful clothes (given to him by a nobleman at the prison). The second everyone can smell him(he's wearing his special perfume), they all stop yelling. They then begin to all cheer for him and say that he must be innocent and that he must be an angel. He steps up to execution block and the executioner drops to his knees and starts to worship Grenouille. Then, Grenouille takes a handkerchief from his pocket, puts a drop of his perfume on it, and lets it float out into the crowd. This causes everyone to become enraptured and they begin to take all of the their clothes off and have a giant orgy. As Grenouille is watching this, he begins to think the red-haired girl he followed and killed in Paris and begins to imagine that instead to killing her, she responds to him and likes him. He then begins to cry. At this point Antoine (the one person who hasn't joined in the orgy) reaches the stage and draws his sword so that he can kill him. Grenouille doesn't fight him at all and is willing to Antoine kill him. However, as Antoine gets closer he drops his sword, falls to his knees, and asks for Grenouille's forgiveness.
We then cut to later that day. The townspeople wake up as though from a hangover, naked and on the ground around the execution site. Grenouille has already left. They quietly get up and quickly leave. The narrator telling us that they never spoke of this incident again. They then proceeded to arrest a man who was Grenouille's supervisor while working at the oil shop. They accused him of the murders since the clothes were technically buried at this workplace. They tortured him for 14 hours and got him to confess and he was hung as the killer of the women.
Grenouille decided to return to Paris. He realized that with his potion he could control anyone and everyone he wanted, but since he was incapable of giving an receiving love, the perfume was pointless for him. He returns to the same smelly fishmarket where he was born, and sees a crowd of homeless people standing around a fire. He then pours the entire vial of perfume on this head. The people smell this and become enraptured, saying that they love him and that he must be an angel. However, they crowd around him and want him so badly that they basically maul him to death. When the crowd finally clears, there's nothing left but some of his bloody clothes.
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