Based on the Patrick Süskind novel Perfume, the plot tells the story of the misanthropic, sociopathic, olfactory genius Grenouille and his homicidal quest for the perfect scent, ending in his macabre death engineered by his own masterly powers of influencing people through scents.
Set in the 1700's, the film begins with the sentencing of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a convicted murderer. Between the reading of the sentence and the execution, the story of his life is told in flashback, beginning with his birth in a French fish market and continuing through his early childhood, when he discovers he possesses an extraordinary sense of smell.
As a tannery apprentice making a delivery to Paris, he wanders off to smell the scents of the city and discovers a young girl selling plums. He draws near to her, breathing in her scent, and before she can scream in surprise, he claps a hand over her face. She suffocates in his grasp.
His dedication to the idea of preserving her scent leads him to a perfumer who teaches Grenouille the art of creating scents.
After leaving the perfumer for the city of Grasse, he experiments to produce an ultimate perfume, based on the scents of women. Needing twelve basic scents - as instructed by the Paris master - he sets out to kill twelve beautiful young women, then extracting their scents with a technique that involves distillation.
The wealthy father of a beautiful young woman, fearing for her safety, spirits her away in secrecy, but Grenouille is able to easily track them by following her scent. When her father awakens in the morning, he enters her room and finds his daughter dead.
Grenouille finishes his perfume but is immediately captured by the authorities.
On the day of his execution, Grenouille is brought before the crowd wearing the perfume made from the virgins' scent. This essence of love and beauty induces the executioner and the crowd declare him to be innocent, before falling into an orgy. The next morning, another man is arrested, charged with the crimes, and executed.
Grenouille, meanwhile, has returned to the Paris fish market where he was born. The narrator explains, "There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else."
He pours the entire bottle of perfume over himself, and the crowd immediately catching the scent, declares him to be angel and they devour him - leaving only his clothing and the empty bottle of perfume.