Perfect Sense (United Kingdom, 2011)

February 07, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Perfect Sense Poster

The premise underlying Perfect Sense is too delicious to ignore and, perhaps, too monumental for any motion picture to live up to. Consider a disease that robs its victims of their senses one-by-one. There is a lull in between each escalation - long enough for the individual to become acclimated to the new limitations on his existence, but not long enough for complacency to set in. First, following an outpouring of grief, smell is gone. Next, in the wake of a brief orgy of terror and hunger, taste is stripped away. Rage then precedes the dissolution of hearing. Finally, before everything goes dark, there is a brief, shining moment of love, joy, and hope.

It's an epidemic. It spreads across the world quickly and relentlessly. The scientific community is stumped and the politicians, as is their wont, have no solutions. No one is even sure what is causing it: pathogens, poison, radiation, aliens... There are no cures or panaceas. And, while human beings can survive (and perhaps even thrive) after losing two or three senses, the removal of the fourth, which seals individuals in a silent, dark cocoon, likely means the end of the world. But, like Lars von Trier's Melancholia, this isn't really about the apocalypse.

Perfect Sense offers an epic tale seen through the prism of a tiny, intimate story. It's the inverse of Contagion, which sacrificed character to scope. There are two problems in the way director David Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson have chosen to approach the material. First, the central love story is trite and only moderately involving. Secondly, the lead female character is an epidemiologist, which puts her on the front lines of fighting the disease (or whatever it is). Yet her job is represented as a sideline. For example: in the midst of a potentially world-ending epidemic, would she still be working 9-to-5 shifts?

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play Michael and Susan, two lovers who have the misfortune to meet as the human race is entering its twilight. During their first night together, when they do nothing more than cuddle for mutual comfort, both lose their sense of smell. Weeks or months later, at the end, all they have left is touch. Perhaps that's enough, at least in the short term. Along the way, we are presented with numerous images of how the progression of the disease is altering life across the world, but the faux news footage is trumped in impact by the less global scenes of customers visiting the restaurant where Michael works. After smell has deserted the world, people crave extreme, spicy foods. Later, in the post-taste world, texture becomes important. People eat to feel the food in their mouths: soft, spongy, crispy, etc. Perfect Sense contains a lot of nice little touches about how the day-to-day experience of living changes with each advance of the disease. Only toward the end do things begin to feel artificial. It would be a lot messier and more chaotic in the real world.

Michael and Susan's love story isn't the stuff of timeless romance. Both have commitment issues, so it takes a while for them to connect. By the time they admit their feelings, it's almost too late. They share a few nice scenes (the best of which is when they bathe together and discover how delightful shaving cream feels in the mouth), but that's it. Our investment in them is not what it needs to be for the overarching tragedy of the epidemic to hit home when it tears at the fabric of their relationship.

Perfect Sense is not unlike 2008's Blindness, in which a city was ravaged by an epidemic of visual obliteration. This movie is more concrete and less allegorical than that one, but some of the ideas are similar. The problem with Perfect Sense is its inability to be effective as either a character-based love story or something larger and more bold. To a degree, it frustrates on both levels and, while it offers fascinating glimpses into an atypical end-of-the-world scenario, it is ultimately not a lot more compelling than many of the dumbed-down, mainstream blockbusters that attempt similar things.

Perfect Sense (United Kingdom, 2011)

Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, Ewen Bremner, Stephan Dillane, Connie Nielsen
Screenplay: Kim Fupz Aakeson
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Music: Max Richter
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2012-02-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1