[10 February 2012]
Perfect Sense is a romance, of sorts, set during a global plague. This context might recall Steven Soderbergh’s chillier Contagion, which framed its medical investigation with a disaster-movie’s emotional pull. Perfect Sense goes at the problem differently, with an irresistible sci-fi/allegorical hook: humanity is literally losing its senses. First, large swaths of the population lose their sense of smell. Weeks later, taste follows. It only gets worse from there, with collective and individual adjustments staggered anew when each step in the disease manifests, producing understandably increasing panic.
Each of these sensory losses is preceded by various emotional spells, as if bodies are crying out with instinctive dread. Before the initial loss of smell, victims are overtaken with a sense of grief. Before they can’t taste anymore, people go mad with hunger, devouring anything in front of them. Michael (Ewan McGregor) is lucky enough to work as a chef in a gourmet kitchen, where he merely has to contend with eating the various ingredients all around him. Susan (Eva Green) faces a slightly more exotic change. A doctor not having any luck figuring out the disease’s causes, she munches ravenously on flowers. Other people with different substances in their paths are less fortunate, but they are only glimpsed in brief worldwide montage, to give our focus on Michael and Susan some dreadful context.
Michael’s restaurant is located near Susan’s apartment, in Glasgow. Before the worst stages of the epidemic, Michael sees her through a window, bums a cigarette, and tries to flirt, although Susan doesn’t respond right away. Michael and Susan soon bond over food, and take solace in each other as the world falls apart. Their relationship begins early enough that the movie can remain ambiguous about whether their connection is premised on true love, unspoken desperation or a mixture of the two that’s as strange as their simultaneously fortuitous and terrible timing.
However we might parse it, the images of the romance focus on its physical dimensions but without linger on them. McGregor and Green are among mainstream cinema’s most oft-naked stars (and director David Mackenzie last worked with McGregor on the explicit Young Adam), which doesn’t precisely set up Perfect Sense‘s approach to sex. It’s the rare movie romance that treats sex casually, with neither caginess nor heaviness (Young Adam was guilty of the latter). Though McGregor and Green are gorgeous, their lovemaking doesn’t so much titillate as it indicates that this is a piece of doomy speculation for adults.
The movie’s thoughtful sensibility prompts our forgiveness when it turns maudlin and faux-lyrical, inviting us a little too obviously to weep over this imaginary disaster. Though the ramifications of worldwide sensory deprivation are fascinating, perhaps especially from the vantage point of restaurant workers figuring out whether they can stay in business, those montages filling us in on the world beyond the protagonists become somewhat cursory.
Equally obligatory is the rudimentary way Perfect Sense goes about setting obstacles before Michael and Susan. Even with all of their big-canvas problems, the movie insists on a rift between them that is almost insultingly arbitrary, a supposed offense taken by Michael that no thinking person in a similar situation would imagine. It’s disappointing to learn that such romantic contrivance still has a place at the end of the world.
But before this plot turn, as well as the movie’s touching final minutes, Perfect Sense succeeds—as Contagion did—in finding an unusually specific way of presenting a global disaster. Its horrors don’t include the typical piles of dead bodies and mass destruction (though both are implied), but they’re still affecting, focused through what so many of us take for granted, that we experience the world firsthand. As senses fall away, people endure simple yet substantial losses on a massive scale, and the movie becomes both intimate and universal.