Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In a "Perfect Sense"

A few weeks ago, I wrote up a review of "In Time," a science fiction action film that was more parable than speculative fiction, a film of interesting metaphors, put in service of a severely lacking story. With "Perfect Sense," we have a similar kind of science fiction tale. An epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green), and a chef, Michael (Ewan McGregor), stumble through a tumultuous romance as the world is thrown into chaos by a series of plagues that rob people of their senses, one by one. The various symptoms of the plagues have no grounding in any kind of reality, and have clearly been scripted for the best dramatic effect, to serve various metaphorical and thematic purposes. And yet this time, despite the iffy premise that requires so much suspension of disbelief, the movie works.

We've seen so many, many onscreen apocalypses in recent years, it's always a nice surprise to see an original way to wipe out humanity. "Perfect Sense" does this by having its plagues systematically attacking the human senses. The first plague takes away people's ability to smell, and with it certain memories related to that particular sense. Susan tracks the outbreak while Michael has to adjust the menu at his restaurant to compensate. The two meet by chance and spend the night together. Neither seem quite sure about a future together, but the attraction is there, and Green and McGregor are lovely together onscreen. It's enough to form a foundation for their eventual relationship, and their lives give us a point of reference as things start to go really wrong in the world, until humanity appears to be on the brink of total disaster.

This is not a particularly complex story, but it is an ambitious, high concept one. How do you show a world without taste? Or the moment of extreme grief that signals the onset of the illness? How do people adjust their lives in order to go on? Director David Mackenzie does a fantastic job of introducing us to each new affliction, to each new variant of the symptoms and the way that the world reacts. I don't want to get into details for fear of spoiling anything, but I found myself marveling several times over how inventive the writing was. Most of the story takes place in Glasgow, where the film was shot, but the pandemic feels global in scope. Much of this is accomplished with small details, or by simply achieving a certain tone and mood, especially toward the end of the film. "Perfect Sense" manages to feel more properly apocalyptic than most big budget apocalypse films I could name.

Another vital piece is the love story. Neither of the characters hooked me immediately, I think because I'd seen Eva Green play a similar character a few too many times before. Here again, she's a desperately troubled woman with a very mercurial temperament. And Ewan McGregor is so low-key at first, he hardly even registers as the leading man. However, this is just the film taking its time. Soon enough both characters start peeling back their layers, and letting down their guard. McGregor and Green are both terrific actors, and complement each other nicely. The emotional core that their messy courtship provides the film is an invaluable, and the fact that it's rough and imperfect and frequently unhappy makes it feel all the more genuine. I can't think of the last time I saw a film with a story so well balanced between the romance and the action.

I don't expect that "Perfect Sense" will work so well for everyone. The metaphors have no subtlety whatsoever, and the emotional manipulation is fairly shameless. In spite of all the doom and gloom, the film's message is supposed to be quite a hopeful one, and it’s terribly heavy-handed. And I totally bought it, hook line, and sinker. I liked the difficult love story. I got caught up in the escalating madness of the plagues. And I found the final sequence of the film truly moving and affecting in a way that I haven't felt about any kind of genre film in ages. If you want a movie that deals in realistic pandemic scenarios, go sit down with Soderbergh's "Contagion." But if you're in the mood for a parable about love and loss and the end of the world, seek out "Perfect Sense." It's a very strange and imperfect film, but it also accomplishes something very rare – it evokes a real sense of human empathy.

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