Smell — the most primal and evocative of the senses — is also the most difficult to translate into words and pictures anywhere near as powerful as the act of smelling itself. In Perfume, a coolly sensuous adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s terrific 1986 international best-seller, the young British actor Ben Whishaw offers a potent translation of smell and its effect. Playing Jean-Baptiste, a near-feral orphan in stinking 18th-century France who is blessed, but mostly cursed, with a supernaturally sensitive nose, Whishaw somehow gives his entire begrimed, sinewy body over to the thrall of sniffing. The first time he inhales the aroma of a beautiful young girl, the experience is orgasmic enough to become an obsession, and it’s clear he’s destined to become the world’s greatest perfumer — never mind that his preservation of natural fragrance involves murder. (J-B’s teacher in odoriferous arts is played, with amusement and rouge, by Dustin Hoffman.)
Tom Tykwer, the inventive German director of Run Lola Run, is a spicy match for the erotically charged novel. He makes effective use of images sliced thin as transparent garlic slivers to convey sensual buildup. And he conjures up a great, fleshly be-in as aroused townsfolk get a whiff of J-B’s infernally perfected fragrance. Perfume misses some of the subtler base notes of Süskind’s creepier, more self-aware original, but Whishaw and Tykwer blend the movie into something quite heady in its own bottle.