Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Perfect Sense: Love in the Time of the Apocalypse

So this is how the world ends—with a collective whimper, which turns out to be nearly as good as a bang. A global epidemic slowly strips everyone of their sensory abilities. This development is rather bad for the restaurant business, but on the upside, a self-involved chef may have finally found the love of his life in David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

As is always the case with pandemics, it starts with only a handful of people who have lost their sense of smell. It is not contagious in any discernable way, but cases spread like wild fire nonetheless. There is no reason to panic though. When smelling is gone, Michael and his colleagues simply crank up the spices. Meanwhile, he and Susan, the epidemiologist living across from his Glasgow restaurant, just might be bantering their way into each other’s hearts. Even when the sense of taste mysteriously vanishes, people still eat out to enjoy the sight and textures of a good meal. Eventually though, the time will come to panic.

Michael and Susan are rather unappealing characters, yet somehow Ewan McGregor and Eva Green still develop some effective romantic chemistry together. Perhaps the idea they are mutually taking themselves off the market is reassuring in some way. Green in particular hits some oddly brusque notes, often sounding like she is trying to channel Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, calling everyone “sailor” for reasons she duly explains at length.

However, Sense has some wonderful supporting turns from seasoned vets, including McGregor’s uncle Denis Lawson (who played Wedge in the real Star Wars movies, so show some respect), as Michael’s restaurant owner-mentor. Stephane Dillane’s always intriguing screen presence also brings out unexpected nuance in Susan’s cerebral boss, Samuel.

Throughout Sense, Mackenzie walks a tightrope, but mostly keeps his balance. While the story might seem to roughly parallel recent epidemic movies, the tone is more fable like, with a fairly steamy romance layered on top. Despite the apocalypse it appears to be hurtling towards, Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay constantly depicts humanity’s persistent adaptability, emphasizing the best of our nature rather than our worst.

Indeed, Sense is pretty good social science fiction, but it is clearly spooked by the metaphysical implications of its premise (especially since each stage is preceded by a burst of profoundly felt emotion—not exactly the typical handiwork of bacteria). Yet, the only references to a higher power come from religious fanatics seen on news broadcasts claiming the outbreak is a manifestation of God’s wrath (a contention the film frankly provides nothing to dispute).

To his immense credit, Mackenzie never tries to tack on an unconvincing environmental message, avoiding didacticism and maintaining a palpable air of mystery. That Sense is not really a downer at all is somewhat remarkable, all things considered. Recommended for viewers who like their genre elements on the softer, lighter side, Sense opens this Friday (2/3) in New York at the IFC Center.