At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, we at ScreenCrave have been making a big deal out of Kevin Smith’s Red State for the last few days, because it’s been the hottest ticket, carried the most controversy, and frankly, been most exciting movie so far. But with the premier of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, it is without a doubt that we’ve seen the best, most effective and affecting movie of the festival. The film is a romantic/sci-fi/horror film which stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. It is graceful, tender, heartbreaking, and terrifying. It is also a movie with a very organic flow, with plot reveals that are best left as a surprise. But it is impossible to discuss the emotional weight this film carries without getting into some of these finer points. So the following review contains a few mild *SPOILERS* with regard to the story, so please be warned. Check out the rest of the review after the jump…
Perfect Sense is the story of a worldwide epidemic which robs people of their senses, one at a time. There is no cure, no understanding of how it transmits, and it affects populations nearly simultaneously. Furthermore, one of the symptoms of this disease is that the loss of a sense is preceded by an intense emotional impulse. Before people lose their sense of smell, they are struck by a crippling sense of sadness and despair. The sadness reflects the connection between the senses of smell and memory. People are suddenly struck by the aspects of their lives they will never be able to reconnect with through the sense they are about to lose; the smell of a grandmother’s perfume and its association with childhood, or fresh cut grass with their first summer job. Yet even through all this, across the world, people adapt and move on with their lives, attempting to return to a sense of normalcy, simply because the alternative is too bleak to acknowledge.
But all of this is merely the premise. The film’s story is framed in the reluctant romance of a chef named Michael (McGreggor), and an epidemiologist named Susan (Green). The two of them are at the center of the crisis in different ways: while Susan struggles in vain to solve the puzzle of this illness, Michael must deal with the consequences; When people lose their sense of smell or taste, Michael must adapt his craft to provide a particular experience which is imperative to human interaction: dining. But the crux of the story is found in their relationship. As the epidemic worsens, they grow closer, in order to distract themselves from the impending doom humanity faces. Their ability to connect on an emotional level provides a modicum of comfort, and they must also take advantage of their sense of touch while it still exists. Yet throughout the whole ordeal, they both carry the scars of tragic relationships from earlier in life, and must open themselves to the other in order to connect.
Before the chaos ensues, romantic or otherwise, the film takes its time to establish a tone of loneliness and despair. It opens with a poem describing the world as it is today, as well as a montage of images depicting it. The tone for Michael and Susan’s relationship, guarded and cold, yet grasping for glimmer of hope, is established almost immediately when, the morning after an evening together, Michael asks Susan to leave. Their mutual disappointment indicates that they were both hoping for a genuine kinship, but their acceptance of this decision implies that they are accustomed to disillusionment in love. Thus, their relationship is established as an allegory for the modern human condition: Despite the fact that we are surrounded by masses of humanity in urban centers, not to mention the technology that supposedly draws people closer together, we go through most of our daily lives by ourselves, and alone.
As the symptoms progress, the pair must adapt their careers to suit the new world as it moves on. How does one make a restaurant survive when people can’t smell or taste their food? Susan’s challenge is harder still, since her feelings of inadequacy and fear for not being able to determine how the disease spreads, or how to cure it. The despair weighs heavier on them, but they take greater comfort in each other. With the end of the world looming darker and closer with each passing symptom, the only thing they can do is share what remains with each other.
This is not a fun movie-going experience, yet it remains more rewarding than say, any of the films made by Alejandro Gonzalez-Innaritu, whose despondence does little more than point out how miserable people are across the globe. This film is more of a celebration of humanity’s ability to connect with one another in the face of these apocalyptic circumstances. Even when they are being harsh with each other, there is a sympathy that lies between Michael and Susan, which makes the events leading to the inevitable end of their relationship, as well as that of humanity, all the more profound. The acting is tenderly subdued, allowing the metaphors of the script to shine through without bludgeoning the audience over the head with the point. And it’s no surprise that the emotional flashes that precede the symptoms of the disease reflect those experienced in the grieving process: we grieve for the loss of their love, the loss of our world as we know it, and eventually, the whole human race.
But make no mistake: This is a horror film. It is an examination of the collapse and end of humanity. The fact that it doesn’t feature a killer, monster, or grimy torture chamber doesn’t change the fact that there is a visceral response to the absolute terror of the situation at hand. This is one of the reasons zombie movies are such effective horror films: the zombies are not the scariest part, but the notion of the complete breakdown of world society, as well as the nature of epidemics, and the fear associated with those themes. But it does not rely on simply that one emotion. It takes you across the spectrum through the highs and lows of life, but always returns to the horrifying prospect of the end of the world. Faces in the Eccles Theater’s crowd were twisted into grimaces, peoples hands covered their mouths and eyes, and sobs & sniffles were audible among the viewers.
Incidentally, the film should be considered science fiction to a certain degree, in the same way that Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is. It takes a notion with a scientific basis, and leads it through a logical progression of events. Epidemiology is one of the most relevant facets of medical science, and this film acknowledges that. As allegorical as this scenario may be, its progression and the way it is handled by those whose job it is to deal with these matters in the film maintains an element of rational truth.
The technical aspects work in perfect harmony to achieve the aforementioned tone: the editing is frenetic and disorienting while in the throes of the disease, and the camera work is smooth and calm when the couple’s love is growing. For example, a long shot on the two lovers’ faces, one in profile and one straight on, merge as they lie in bed holds for a long period to paint their newfound unity. The film’s score is understated, yet dramatic with swelling strings and soft piano melodies leading the listener to an emotionally vulnerable space which the story then takes advantage of. And special note should be made for supporting actors Ewen Brennen (Trainspotting) and Stephen Dellane (44 Inch Chest), whose clear understanding of their roles as friends in Michael and Susan’s respective lives bring a sense of fun and rationality to the turmoil as the necessity for those types in their lives increases. Consequently, when succumb to the disease, as everyone does, it carries particular emotional weight.
Again, it is a difficult and uncomfortable movie to internalize, but truly speaks to the power of film as an artistic medium. It represents senses that cannot be expressed in film with sublime simplicity, and charts the extreme ends of the emotional scale. It can leave viewers feeling crippled with sadness for the end of all things, or overjoyed at the potential for human sentiment to be expressed among each other. The haunting part of this movie, is that the intense feelings one is left with as the credits roll are likely one of those represented as a symptom of the disease at the center of it. So on your way out of the theater from seeing this film, stop and smell the roses, just to make sure you still can.