Entertainment Movies

Sunday 26 February 2017

Review: Perfect Sense * * *

(15A, general release)

Paul Whitington

In Hollywood, the apocalypse is accompanied by great wailing and gnashing of teeth, by alien invasions, natural disasters, blood, guts and panic in the streets. But David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense opts for an altogether more interesting and poetic approach to the emergence of a nasty super virus that robs humanity by increments of everything that makes living worthwhile.

In a sublime opening sequence -- the credit for which must go to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens -- a camera spans a busy city in which people eat, drink, live, laugh and love; do all the things, in short, that are about to become impossible.

Blissfully unaware of the approaching nightmare is Michael (Ewan McGregor), a talented chef in a high-end Glasgow restaurant who lives for his work and has avoided emotional commitment. So wary is he of intimacy, in fact, that when we first meet him he's politely asking a girl he's just had sex with to leave because he can't sleep with someone watching him. All of that changes, though, when he encounters Susan (Eva Green), a rather spiky young woman who lives across the street from the restaurant. She initially dismisses Michael's cheesy chat-up lines when he bums a cigarette off her during a work break, but fate is about to throw them together in the most dramatic fashion.

Susan is a researcher at a medical laboratory that has been investigating a mysterious new virus that induces uncontrollable sadness in subjects before robbing them of their sense of smell. Nothing like it has even been seen before, and cases are beginning to pop up all over the world. Susan is coming home from work one night when she meets Michael outside the restaurant. She seems upset so he asks her in and cooks her a meal. Just as she begins to eat it, however, she's overcome by grief.

At first, I thought it was because he'd served her Rioja with sea bass, but no -- Susan has contracted the virus, her sense of smell disappears, and Michael's soon follows. Not the best news for a chef, but if you had to choose a sense to lose, smell would probably be it. But the virus, of course, doesn't stop there. As it gathers hold of human constitutions it then attacks the sense of taste, and before long people in their tens of millions are going deaf as well. Michael and Susan meanwhile, have fallen in love, and they draw closer just as civilisation begins to collapse under the weight of this voracious new plague.

Perfect Sense's screenplay, by Danish writer Kim Fupz Aakeson, is admirably lean and replete with possibility. And the devilish idea of a disease that squeezes every ounce of pleasure out of human existence while leaving you hopelessly alive is a powerful one. There's something touchingly pathetic about how mankind attempts to adapt and survive in the face of this new threat: when taste goes, for instance, people go to restaurants to touch and look at food, and critics write glowingly of a meal's consistency.

There's a real intelligence to the way the attack on the senses is explored, and Mackenzie's film is gorgeously photographed. But the movie's unfolding tragedy is undermined at key moments by the twin threats of pretentiousness and unintentional comedy. When the sense of taste is attacked, the first symptom is a rush of frantic gluttony: this looks shocking, but also hilarious, as does the helpless grief, which induces some shocking overacting.

More importantly, there's something po-faced about the way the film pauses to wallow in the impending sensory blackout that slows the narrative down and telegraphs a desperate wish to be taken seriously. Which is a pity, because Perfect Sense is full of good ideas, and McGregor and Green are really good together, and give compelling portrayals of a couple who might have considered falling in love at a more appropriate moment.

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