Perfume: The Story of a Murderer tells the life story of olfactory genius and serial killer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He murders over a dozen women in order to capture and preserve their scents. In 18th century France, he is born to a poor woman who abandons him in the fish market. In an orphanage, he grows up a detached young man. He becomes a tanner's apprentice, where he is charged with making deliveries to businesses in Paris. Upon his first delivery to Paris, he is overwhelmed with all the new scents. One in particular catches his attention. It is the scent of a young, red-headed woman. He follows her into an alley and surprises her by sneaking up behind to sniff her. To keep her from screaming, he covers her mouth, and she suffocates. Grenouille is very distraught to learn that her scent slowly fades away after her death and vows to learn how to preserve the beautiful smell of a woman.
Afterwards, he meets a perfumer named Giuseppe Baldini. Baldini is excited by Grenouille's ability to identify all of the scents in his perfume shop. Grenouille agrees to work for Baldini if he will teach him his methods of distillation. Baldini teaches him that each perfume is made up of 12 notes, and it is the illusive 13th note that makes a perfume's scent truly unique. Baldini tells of a perfume discovered in Egypt that made everyone who smelled it believe they were in paradise. Grenouille sets out to make the perfect perfume. However, when Baldini's distillation methods fail to preserve the scents he desires, Grenouille sets out to another city in search of a new method and fresh victims to experiment on.
The film stars Ben Whishaw as Grenouille and Dustin Hoffman as Baldini. Alan Rickman also appears as a rich man whose daughter becomes Grenouille's main target.