Wednesday, May 18, 2011

SIFF — Perfect Sense

Here's one of the two films I saw at yesterday's SIFF press preview screenings. (The other, Paper Birds, I'll get to next.) I joined a nearly packed house. No surprise there — Ewan McGregor (feted this year at SIFF) and Eva Green! "Action/Adventure, Romance, SciFi and Beyond" exclaims SIFF's category tags. It's a slam-dunk!

Well, hmm.

Perfect Sense
U.K., 2011
SIFF's page

What an intriguing hook à la Michael Crichton: An inexplicable disease is sweeping the globe. After brief bouts of overwhelming feeling — crippling grief, anguishing fear of aloneness, violent rage/anger/hatred, and so on — victims discover that they have lost one of their senses: smell, then taste, and so on. The affliction strikes in waves, each stage followed by a respite before the next one arrives. It's not contagious, says Glasgow epidemiologist Susan (Eva Green), yet it nonetheless spreads rapidly. The cause is unknown. An eco-apocalypse? God's wrath? A government-military conspiracy? Space aliens? The biggest question of all is: If it can't be stopped, how will it (or we) end?

Now, that's one terrific premise for a "science mystery" beat-the-clock thriller, and there were early moments when Perfect Sense brought The Andromeda Strain to mind. Perfect Sense is even described in some of the press material as a "thriller/romance."

However, Perfect Sense is not that movie. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; it's just that the premise is more interesting than what the movie does with it. Which is a shame because director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson use that premise as a poetic metaphor — this subdued, broody movie is ultimately not "about" the disease at all, see — and do a reasonably interesting job of it.

Yet in the end Perfect Sense feels like a long (even at only 88 minutes) distended allegory engineered to deliver a worthy but, by the closing credits, too bluntly obvious Author's Message.

Susan, heartbroken after a recent break-up, finds herself entering into a tentative romance with a chef, Michael (Ewan McGregor), who works in a restaurant that shares a back alley with her flat.  Their intimate personal story, coupled with her professional involvement in finding a cure, is the movie's core narrative, the lens through which we see the transformative worldwide End of Days catastrophe as they too become victims and must deal with what the cumulative stages of sensory loss mean to themselves individually and as a relationship. Even here, though, the movie lands a couple rings outside the bull's-eye. For instance, Susan and Michael's meet-cute "balcony scene" (she tosses him a cigarette and then her lighter) is one of several too-on-the-nose key moments in a story that's aching to be told with figurative grace and greater truths told slantwise.

Perfect Sense isn't "about" their tragic romance either, not really. Again, that's just a component of the movie's over-arching poetical metaphor: As victims lose their physical senses one by one, most of them discover and appreciate the newly revealed sensations around them. Lose the sense of smell, and taste becomes that much more important. Lose taste next: sight and tactile sensations take on new dimensions. (The restaurant setting was chosen with easy utilitarian story purpose.) Then when hearing goes, the sensuality of touch, even music via vibration, elevates to hitherto unexplored levels. And so on. Each time, people learn to live with the new Normal or else lash out to hasten the destruction of themselves and the world as a whole.

Ingmar Bergman, is there no film you can't influence?
Before the movie starts, both Susan and Michael are grieving from painful relationship losses: the death of her beloved father, her recent lover, the sort-of girlfriend he treated poorly as cancer killed her. And because fundamental loss is something we all must experience as part of being alive, the disease's symptoms of profound sensory removal — plus how the characters cope, the choices they make afterward — are the film's emblematic expression of all that. In real life, see, when we lose a loved one, our aftershocked lives can, if we only reach out with our remaining Self, be renewed and revealed in ways we might not realize otherwise. Lose our jobs or our spouses, our health or our youth, and "new pleasures of the world" (as Eva Green's narration puts it while touching its nose) offer sensations and interactions that make our new Normal worthwhile. Out of tragedy can come growth and insight. How we deal (or not) with great loss is part of what defines us. Our hope exists in the indomitable human spirit. As our taken-for-granted world gets stripped away, we become aware of "the shining moments" (ibid.) and what's Truly Important.

Once more, and so on.

The theme of "life goes on" gets repeated in the dialogue like a blinking neon arrow spelling out "Meaningful Message Here." By the midpoint, subtext gets piloted to the surface like a submarine needing air. By the end, the story and its characters have become neither story nor characters, but conveyors of the Message.

Granted, yes, it's a fine message, one that we should indeed be reminded of now and then. But Perfect Sense, while mostly well-crafted and just gripping enough to carry us through to its closing moments that arrive with the inevitability of a melting ice cube, is too clumsy and mechanical to illuminate that message beyond a pat 12-step platitude that you could more easily fit onto a Starbucks cup.

Basically, the movie is one big Life Coaching session. That it stars Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, and her breasts, well, that's the full-color glossy trifold brochure that gets us in the door.

It's not in all respects a "bad" movie. It's well cast (Green's physiognomy was bestowed by nature to play melancholy) and good-looking (minus several examples of how not to use verité shaky-cam). It aims to work with interesting themes and ideas. I'm wholeheartedly on board with what the director and screenwriter are reaching for. (It's a bold stroke to attempt an "up" feeling as the world literally fades to black in the final frames.) And I can't say it doesn't possess a certain quiet power. Not to mention, let's be forever grateful that M. Night Shyamalan didn't grab its "hook" premise first.

But as a film the too-somberly paced Perfect Sense (could they pick a more affectedly twee title?) might have worked better as a short, and without Eva Green's yellow-highlighter narration ("Without smell, an ocean of past images disappears," ew). The scene when the whole world is, apparently, simultaneously stricken with grotesque, animalistic hunger (before losing the sense of taste) not only strikes a jarring, off-key Sam Raimi/George Romero tone, it came across as filler mandated by the marketing department to jazz up the trailer.

While I can appreciate Perfect Sense "academically" or as an interesting exercise, it struck no emotional chord in me. I didn't feel anything while watching it, and I suspect that I was supposed to walk out of the theater feeling a very great deal.

Music: B.B. King & Friends, Blues Summit
Near at hand: The front door open to the sun and air