Film Review


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Perfect Sense

Ewan McGregor smells Eva Green in David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. [Photo: IFC Films]

Perfect Sense

Perfect Sense, David Mackenzie's sobering romance saga posing as a mini-disaster epic, opens with a sunny montage of adults in motion and children at play—life witnessed through familiar sensory patterns and rhythms. The cinematic collage represents "the days as we know them," according to Susan (Eva Green), an epidemiologist whose frank but lyrical voiceover will act as the one stable force in a film about increasingly emotional and social volatility. Almost immediately, Europe is hit with multiple cases of a strange new disease where the victim experiences an interlude of heightened grief before losing their sense of smell. Scientists don't know how or why it's spreading, whether it's ecological terrorism or environmental disaster. Global panic seems bound to erupt, but then Perfect Sense throws a narrative curveball at the viewer: People adapt to their new limitations and move forward, despite expectations of a brewing apocalypse.

In between researching and spending time with her sister (Connie Nielson), Susan contemplates the moment she will be stricken with the disease. Her time comes during a chance encounter with Michael (Ewan McGregor), a charming chef whose restaurant sits cattycorner to her apartment. In the middle of Michael's expansive kitchen, Susan tastes his specialty fish dish only to start incessantly weeping moments later. After Susan loses her sense of taste, the two share an emotionally resonant night together that binds them for the duration. The ebbs and flows of their building and complex relationship occur within the construct of the epidemic at hand, not simply because of it. This offers a fascinating juxtaposition between seemingly divergent conventions in the romance and disaster films, revealing Perfect Sense to be one of the most surprising genre hybrids in years.

Unlike Steven Soderbergh's globetrotting Contagion, a cold and antiseptic mosaic spread thin over a mostly listless international scope, Perfect Sense stays with Susan and Michael in England as they watch people lose their other senses over time. When each event occurs, society seems to be on the verge of collapse, yet Mackenzie repeatedly highlights how people adapt and evolve to change. By focusing the potentially expansive narrative—and these themes in particular—on the experience of these two characters, only referencing the surrounding madness through hints in the mise-en-scène and news-footage montages, Mackenzie creates a vacuum of personal details and memories far more potent than any widescreen shot of citywide mayhem. These seemingly small moments retain increased value and power since they now have an obvious expiration date.

Perfect Sense argues that the events in question can potentially free humans to be more honest with each other and those around us. What's even more interesting about Mackenzie's film is that each character develops new ways of expression (about memory, art) as their respective senses disappear, with each change creating new forms of communication instead of slipping them further into madness. It's a theory best examined when Susan and Michael walk past a public music performance where a violinist uses music and lyrics to describe lost smells to the surrounding crowd. This scene comes immediately after the first event, challenging Susan's earlier claim that, "without smell, an ocean of past images disappear." According to Perfect Sense, no matter how dark and empty the world's fate, we will always have an evolutionary step to look forward to.

Visually glassy and smooth, Perfect Sense values the dynamic mood of each scene without being overly stylized. Interior shots are dominated by a metallic sheen and light resonating a soft glow, while exterior sequences are kept cramped by Mackenzie's focused handheld camera. Sound design is essential, as off-screen laughs, cries, and screams act as reference points for human experiences beyond Susan and Michael's scope, reminders that an entire world exists outside the frame. That is until even those signs of experience (like sight and hearing) disappear into the darkness of a world forced to adapt once again. That Perfect Sense actually sees our hope and durability in this constantly recycling process of reconstruction remains its most profound gift.

Director(s): David Mackenzie Screenwriter(s): Kim Fupz Aakeson Cast: Eva Green, Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Connie Nielsen, Stephen Dillane Distributor: IFC Films Runtime: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2011

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