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.