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There’s something magical about chemistry. Well, more specifically, the chemistry that has come to define that feeling between two people who meet and feel an undeniable attraction for each other, even beyond the immediate sexual impulses. Our hearts beat faster, our hands tremble, our senses come alive. And there’s the rub in this touching little gem. What if in the throes of a new relationship, when you feel something like you’ve never felt before, while in the arms of a new lover, you begin to lose the ability to make you feel as you do?
That’s essentially the premise behind Perfect Sense, a film that is leagues better than the awkward title (originally called The Last Word, itself far removed from the what this experience is truly about). A worldwide epidemic is causing every human on Earth to lose every sense, and therefore the very thing that defines us, shapes us, keeps us who we are and, as it comes to a close, maybe our very existence.
THE STORY: It starts with smell, which triggers a bit of concern at first, but then worry as it spreads quickly. There is a symptom, which signals its arrival; the victim suffers uncontrollable sadness. It literally collapses them. Soon the world entire suffers. But it eventually fades and the sorrow passes, and people cope with no way to savor aroma. This is followed by taste, which triggers a tinge of fear and then sudden, ravenous gluttony. Again, it passes and we live in a world where there is no smell nor taste. It’s difficult to imagine. Food is purely functional.
This poses a problem for Michael (Ewan McGregor), a popular chef at an upscale restaurant whose customers come from far and wide to indulge his cuisine. The restaurant owner fears business will plummet, but Michael is confident that they will return, craving the same social experience dining together provides. He’s right. With no taste, food becomes a tool for social interaction on an entirely different level and with no smell, eating with friends, family, business partners, and lovers is about somehow enriched by the pleasure of imagination. The world has evolved and life goes on.
For Susan (Eva Green), this is more of a worry. She is an epidemiologists, searching for patterns in the epidemic, piecing clues together to predict what is next. With smell and taste gone, it’s pretty clear what lies ahead. She and her team struggle with what to do, working with agencies around the world that have been battling the science in hopes of finding a cure and prevent worldwide panic.
Michael and Susan have also just met. They are wary of each other and about entering into a relationship, both fiercely independent but almost uncontrollably drawn to each other as well. They are in each other’s arm when they both lose their smell, both crushed under the weight of immeasurable sorrow before it is lifted. Taste follows, and while it is a difficult thing to let go, they, like the rest of the world, adjust and eventually even find it liberating.
What comes next is where it all changes, and I dare not reveal the process for what you can already guess. Directed by David Mackenzie, Perfect Sense is a challenging film, an adult film, and a film that makes no reservations about its premise. The rules it establishes are strictly followed and as it progresses, is weighs heavily on the characters and the audience, forcing us to continually wonder how it will resolve. It is a remarkable little film and one that dares to go where you don’t want it to, but succeeds entirely because it does. It may have a divided audience, and it suffers from an unnecessary narration, but these shortcomings do not weaken the experience. It’s a truly fascinating, mind-bending, journey.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The film unabashedly makes love the message, which is the right thing to do. While perhaps it could have made that thought less opaque in the delivery, the reason it works so well here is the powerful portrayal of both love and loss and how the two are essentially bonded. The film begins like a standard medical catastrophe story but makes clear that this is not where it is heading. This is about Susan and Michael and the evolution of their bond. Metaphorically, we can say we’ve “lost our senses” when we fall in love, doing and saying things we might never have even dreamt possible. That’s the romance. That’s the lust. That’s the chemistry. That is what’s happening to them. This evolution, and the parallels it makes in defining what love is fascinating and troubling.
Both Green and McGregor are very well cast. McGregor has never wedged himself into the handsome leading man role he so naturally fits, and here again, creates a sympathetic character who earns that sympathy with authenticity. That is the film’s greatest strength, in fact. For example, when the first case of a person without a sense of smell is examined by Susan, she and her supervisor discuss whether they should panic, immediately recognizing it as something bigger than it looks. In a conversation later with her sister, she talks about her romance with Michael in the same terms. This escalates when taste fails. And so on. The parallels are obvious.
A GREAT MOMENT: There are several compelling moments in Perfect Sense that have surprising impact, though I’ve always liked this one when they both succumb to the loss of their sense of smell. It begins with her, as she melts into uncontrollable sorrow, collapsing onto their bed as he can only watch, waiting for his turn. As she begins to settle, so it then strikes him, and there is a moment as he attempt to curb it, a protective core within him that presses to hold on for her, it’s too much of a tide to hold back, and he soon overwhelmed and falls into an abyss of melancholy. She turns and embraces him and they pass into this new stage together.
It’s a simple and short sequence, and then in the morning, she is up first, sitting at the table, realizing she no longer can smell coffee as he stumbles in and sits beside her, accepting with silent resolve his loss as well, and what I really like is how it echoes a couple’s first sexual encounter in how it is filmed, with them drawn to the bed, he taking care of her and then her, him, sleeping and rising in exhaustion before waking and realizing what’s between them has now changed them.
THE TALLY: The tragedy of each stage of the epidemic and its effect on the population is a metaphor for acceptance and the joy we experience as we pass through each stage of a growing relationship. That each stage finds some in turmoil and others moving forward, evolving, even celebrating, reveals our weakness and tenacity for the altering effects of true love. The movie frames the film as a tragedy with underlying joy, building toward an inevitable, seemingly bleak ending that can easily be misunderstood simply because the movie refuses to placate to the conventions of modern romance film. Michael and Susan’s story is never our story, which is quite different from how many movies approach love, attempting to make it seem like an achievable fantasy, a quest we not only must undertake but one we all share.
Not so with Perfect Sense. Love is not a shared experience. Love is for those who find it, and it is wholly different for each. We aren’t meant to know the depths of Michael and Susan, even though we see glimpses of their emotional and physical love. When it ends, what they share, what they finally understand and desperately bring to each other is only theirs and the movie rightly prevents us, and by the rules it sets in the world they live in, everyone else from seeing it. That’s how love should be. It’s what to watch.