Perfect Sense is a film certainly worthy of appreciation, but a struggle to love.
It promises an exciting premise—people around the world are starting to lose their senses, beginning with the sense of smell, and no one knows why. Caught in the middle of the mysterious pandemic are a pair of lovers, a chef and a researcher, who discover they need one another to make it through the chaos.
Starring A-listers Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer, Trainspotting) and Eva Green (Casino Royale, The Golden Compass), Perfect Sense is classified as a Drama/Romance/Fantasy but has an apocalyptic feel and an impending sense of doom.
The film alternates between scenes involving Michael (McGregor) and Susan (Green) and photo/film montages set to narration and music. The opening montage is of life scenes from around the world, set to slow piano music and the following monologue:
“There is darkness, there is light; there are men and women; there’s food; there are restaurants, disease; there’s work, traffic; the days as we know them; the world as we imagine the world.”
All these flashes of images and changes of style make for a confusing start, leaving the viewer wondering if and when the pieces will begin to connect, but catching the attention nonetheless. The tone of the film is set at this stage and it does not deviate.
The actual plot then makes its entrance—people are losing their sense of smell, and the only warning sign is an overwhelming sense of sadness. Soon, a few cases turn into an outbreak. Researchers, including Susan, don’t know what to make of it, but they try to keep things quiet and low key. They classify the disease as noncontagious, but somehow it is still spreading. Is it environmental? Religious? Terrorist-spawned?
Another montage begins, showing desperate shots of people crying in streets and houses, falling to the ground in their despair, overcome with inexplicable grief. The anguish is heartbreakingly beautiful and the single most lingering aspect of the film.
These montages, and the accompanying poetic narration, are what make Perfect Sense feel more like an art piece than a commercial box office hit.
When the next sense, taste, is about to go, the first sign comes in the form of paranoia. Everyone seems to get hit at once—in the restaurant, in the streets, everywhere in the world perhaps. People writhe on the ground with hallucinations and irrational fears and then are overcome with extreme hunger. They become animals, devouring anything in sight in a montage of very disturbing images. Butchers and fishmongers eat their wares raw, Michael and his chefs drink jugs of oil and lick out vats of mustard, and Susan, who is in a parking lot, consumes a bouquet of flowers.
Somehow Michael and Susan find each other in the frenzy and a dark, torrid love scene follows. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that it is not terribly sexy.
The next days or weeks continue as the world learns how to live without smell or taste, and people train themselves to enjoy textures, sights, sounds and feelings and learn to forget what has been lost. The most tragic loss of all, it seems, is that the memories triggered by these senses have disappeared.
Perfect Sense has a distinctly European feel, even a Scandinavian feel, which undoubtedly comes from the script penned by Danish writer Kim Fupz Aakeson. It is a melancholy film and a relationship-centered social statement. It’s not a film for hows or whys. It’s not a film with resolutions or answers. Perfect Sense is a film that simply tells its story and leaves the viewer to digest and disseminate a meaning.
The performances are all solid, but safe. Though there are twists and turns in detail, the basic narrative of Perfect Sense is simple and predictable, even repetitive. It is an artistic disaster story, a sort of apocalyptic crash on film with a lot of stunning pictures and somber poetic words. And while it is an interesting concept, the end product unfortunately feels dry and tasteless, possibly because there is little connection felt with the main protagonists or their plight. They themselves hardly seem upset at times with the devastation of losing their precious senses. The cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens) and the music (by Max Richter) are excellent, but these do not carry the film alone, and it is all a bit sickly after a while.
Perfect Sense was directed by David Mackenzie, the award-winning British director of Mister Foe (2007) and Young Adam (2003). It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, continuing on to play at another dozen or more prestigious festivals around the world. It should find a good home in limited release art cinemas and a moderate DVD release.
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green
Release Date: Feb. 10, 2012