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At The Picture Show
February 2012

Perfect Sense

Memory loss

Strangely insightful 'Perfect Sense' is emblematic of an intriguing recent pattern

Perfect Sense
IFC Films
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Kim Fupz Aekeson
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, Stephen Dillane, Ewen Bremner, Denis Lawson and Connie Nielsen
Not rated / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

The apocalypse has become an abstraction. An idea, an event, to be experienced but not understood. No longer satisfied with the easily digestible causes (pollution, alien invasions, nuclear war, viral outbreaks, zombies), filmmakers are moving increasingly toward the end of civilization - or at least civilization as we know it - as a thoroughly unexplainable, and thus more terrifying, phenomenon.

Yes, there will always be the global disaster blockbusters, but an entirely different approach is officially trending. Taking a look back just over the last few years, a subtle pattern has emerged in the way films - smaller films in particular - have dealt with apocalyptic scenarios. Interest in the subject hasn't waned - in fact, it seems to have increased - but more and more we're seeing it treated as mysterious and obscure, an existential catastrophe rather than a physical one.

In Take Shelter, it came in the form of ominous dreams and hallucinations, foretelling some kind of ambiguous doom. In Children of Men, it was the sudden onset of human infertility. In this year's Vanishing on 7th Street, the end came, quite simply, as a shadow. In Southland Tales, it was . . . OK, no one really knows what that was, but a conventional apocalypse it was not. Even M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening was abstract in approach, even if the approach failed.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse) offered explanations of a sort, but they were primarily allegorical in nature. The Road steadfastly resisted concrete explanation of its postapocalyptic wasteland. And how about Blindness? It, like Children of Men, chronicled a wholly unexplained phenomenon, an abrupt epidemic of blindness. Now, in much the same spirit, comes David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense. Here, the downfall begins with the loss of smell. The condition is diagnosed, its symptoms explained - it begins with an attack of uncontrollable sadness, and when that passes, your sense of smell is gone forever. The epidemic is not identified as contagious, but it spreads virtually everywhere. In time, people grow used to it. They move on.

And yet there is a genuine poignance in the way the film examines all that comes with the loss of even one sense - the memories and feelings attached to every fragrance; the connections, the people, the moments in time. The epidemic may not be death, per se, but it's a death of something, at least.

After that comes the loss of another sense, this time after an onrush of intense hunger. And so on.

Perfect Sense is, for all its flaws, a fascinating attempt at plumbing mankind's cultural psyche in the face of an incomprehensible calamity. Mackenzie paints the screen with a cool naturalism that nicely enhances the sense of calm matter-of-factness that sets in after each stage of the event. But he also breaks that calm with occasional pops of bright color that lend the film a hopeful - even joyous - tone.

The visual approach fits the narrative as well. One recurring thread is that, as people lose one sense, they appreciate the others even more. If they can't smell, then the taste of something stands out that much more. If they can't taste, it's the texture - the moisture, the consistency, the thickness. As the characters gradually adapt and begin to appreciate the remaining wonders around them, so do we in the audience begin to notice and appreciate the pockets of lightness and brightness that remain in a world going dark.

Love is the recurring answer to all of this - though it seems Mackenzie made a concerted effort to not dive too much into melodramatic territory, which seems like the terrain the story keeps gravitating toward. (I mean, the movie's tagline is "Without love there is nothing" - which easily could have been a bad omen.) That's not to discount romance as a central component of the film - it is - but Mackenzie approaches it in subtle ways. As much as anything, it relies on a sense of shared loss and mourning - and a pressing need for some sort of intimacy in the midst of fear and disorder.

The principals - Michael (Ewan McGregor) and Susan (the magnificent Eva Green) - have a mutual but hesitant attraction. Their relationship builds on small, even awkward moments that turn into great character scenes as the two gradually learn to understand one another, becoming closer as the world around them narrows.

What's not so subtle is the film's narration, which breaks in to disrupt the atmosphere and character work, spelling everything out as clearly as possible. It's almost as if, for some reason, Mackenzie doesn't trust his visual skills (which are ample) enough to let them do the job on their own.

It plays like too much of a shortcut - something a 93-minute film with weighty material really doesn't need. The performances by McGregor and Green are expressive enough on their own without being undermined by that kind of external imposition.

Still, I can only find so much fault in a film with so much else to offer. There's a strange yet potent sense of perspective in Perfect Sense. Typically when a story takes big-picture subject matter and boils it down to one romantic coupling, it ends up lacking any perspective whatsoever (see: Titanic). Here, the effect is the opposite - the simple story of these two people manages to crystallize everything. Sometimes, less is more.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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