The very literal scheme of The Five Senses is more than a little daunting. Just as the title insinuates, each of its major characters is dealing with a crisis which reduces in some way to one of the five senses. So, a widowed massage therapist has lost “touch” with her sense of humanity, a young baker has lost her sense of taste, a French eye doctor is going deaf, etc. (and it doesn’t help that all of the characters’ names begin with the letter “R”). And yet, there are also moments when the sheer strangeness of their situations poses unanswerable questions and peers into emotional dilemmas not often broached in movies. At such moments, The Five Senses turns into something both more and less than the sum of its very precise parts.
Like his fellow Toronto native Atom Egoyan, director/co-producer/co-writer Jeremy Podeswa favors slow camera pans and elegant compositions, warm-unto-spooky lighting and dialogue that’s abstract and distancing, but also uncomfortably revealing. The plot of The Five Senses involves a series of domestic dramas linked only by the coincidence of characters working in the same office building. Within this setting, the film considers something akin to urban alienation, fanned by media sensationalism and the almost banal luridness of anonymous buildings and alleyways. But beneath this rather usual theme, the film is also concerned with the nuances of communication, how people make sense to and for one another.
In spite of its urban locale and its interest in the effects of violence and violation or more precisely, the effects of the threat of violence and violation The Five Senses isn’t about panic , unfriendliness, or brutality, per se. Rather, it’s about the ways that your senses are deluded and depressed by daily emotional beat-downs, the kinds of events that are so routine, they hardly register, except by their long-term effects, most of which you only discern when they’re pointed out to you. Still, the city is crucial as a trigger: the single story-thread that affects all the characters B as observers or participants B is the disappearance of a little girl in a park across the street from the office building, which means that reporters set up camp, trying to interview most everyone who comes in or out. The site, so humdrum to everyone who works in the building, turns slightly exotic as it shows up on their tvs. This strangeness shifts everyone’s point of view, slightly. As the characters start to see their routines differently, they also begin to recognize their responsibility in shaping them. All this makes for a chain of life-changing revelations.
Each of these revelations is occasioned by an ostensible choice. For instance, the reticent, terminally self-conscious cake baker Rona (Mary-Louise Parker) has to decide what to do when her beautiful and sensuous Italian lover Roberto (Marco Leonardi) whom she met while on vacation in Europe comes for a visit and presses for a commitment. The fact that neither speaks the other’s language is the least of their problems: the more he acts out his excitement and willingness to love her, the more Rona retreats. And the more advice he offers on her gorgeous but flavorless cakes, the more she resents him. She’s unable to accept him as he is, or to be kind to herself. Her mother tells her bluntly during a phone call, “Nothing’s perfect. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.”
Equally afraid to make a concession to her mother or a commitment to Roberto, Rona turns to distracting conversations with her best friend Robert (Daniel MacIvor), a bisexual housecleaner whose sense of smell is so finely attuned or so he thinks that he believes he can smell love. While Rona tries to avoid intimacy, Robert seeks it avidly, to the point of making a list of past lovers whom he invites, one by one, to a local café for a drink and a sniff, hoping to determine whether he or she is the real thing. By juxtaposing their seemingly different approaches to romance, the film makes clear that both Rona and Robert seek a similar self-affirmation, which neither can reach on his or her own. Both are suspicious of the surfaces they can understand only through their “senses,” yet both are equally unsure of deeper possibilities, in themselves, their relationships, and their pasts.
The film offers this kind of observation repeatedly, in each character’s anxious quest for truth and love. Just so, the French eye doctor and opera buff Richard (Philippe Volter), knowing that he is going deaf, starts collecting sounds that hold significant memories for him, while also fearing what his imminent loss actually means to him, becoming dependent on other people. Looking for a way to express his independence, Richard spends an evening with a prostitute (Pascale Bussieres), who, as prostitutes tend to do in the movies, gives him wise advice on coping with loss.
In the midst of the film’s insistent order, the most unruly and intriguing character is a teenager. Rachel (the stunningly effective Nadia Litz) is the angry daughter of the massage therapist, Ruth (Gabrielle Rose). Good-hearted Ruth is having trouble recovering from her husband’s recent death, and in turn, has drifted away from Rachel, who is feeling confused and spending her days alone. Rachel’s ascribed “sense” is sight: she’s age-appropriately concerned with her own appearance (she wears heavy-rimmed glasses, her body is changing) and also trying to figure out what it means to be sexual, to have sexual desire or sexual identity. Her crisis comes when she’s supposed to be looking after a young daughter of one of her mom’s clients. The child disappears in the park while Rachel is distracted by a couple making out on a bench, which leads to the aforementioned media onslaught, and a serious discussion about loss between Ruth and the girl’s mother, Anna (Kissed‘s Molly Parker, again simultaneously radiant and steely). Meanwhile, Rachel is essentially left to deal with her guilt and panic on her own.
Wandering through the park again, half searching for her missing charge and half searching for a way out of her unhappy life, Rachel meets 16-year-old Rupert (Brendan Fletcher), a fellow misfit and novice voyeur. While the film’s other relationship vignettes take you pretty much where you might expect to go, this one remains slightly off-balance and unresolved. As they discuss their mutual feelings and interests, Rachel and Rupert also delve into gender limitations and sexual expectations, coming to an understanding of each other and themselves that is refreshingly generous and nonjudgmental: when Rachel dresses Rupert in girl’s clothes and makeup, he’s more than willing to embrace the chance to adopt a new identity, to be different.
Rachel is moved by his courage, and he reassures her, “Not fitting in forces you to be original.” This might stand as the film’s guiding sentiment. When the characters try too hard to fit in, to be unseen, untouched, and untasted, they miss experiences and connections. As Rachel watches and participates in Rupert’s transformation, she is able finally to see herself in relation to someone as “other” as she feels she is, and also, in her heart of hearts, wants to be. As she puts it, she feels like she’s looking at Rupert “inside out.” This insight, so intimate and self-reflective, makes the best sense of The Five Senses. For these kids, feeling and knowing themselves means feeling and knowing each other. And so they can connect in ways that their adult counterparts can only yearn for.