A film review by Craig J. Koban December 12, 2012


2012, R, 92 mins.

Ewan McGregor: Michael / Eva Green: Susan / Connie Nielsen: Jenny / Stephen Dillane: Stephen / Ewen Bremner: James / Denis Lawson: Michael's boss

Directed by David Mackenzie / Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson

The perhaps a bit too craftily titled PERFECT SENSE is one of those low-tech and small-scale sci-fi dramas that try to get by on the power of its ideas, contemplative themes, and assured performances.  It certainly contains a premise that, on paper, is highly unique: a world spanning pandemic slowly and methodically begins robbing the planet’s denizens of their basic senses, one by one, until they are rendered deaf, blind, and essentially in total darkness and despair.  What a novel and infectiously intriguing concept for an end-of-days yarn.  I have  countless apocalyptic and deadly disease films before to the point of where they are beginning to grow stale and tired, but PERFECT SENSE at least scores points for inventiveness.   

Where PERFECT SENSE loses me, though, is that it attempts to be two very different films, during which time both only work with middling efficiency.  First, there is a central romance contained within the story that deals with one of the more overused clichés of romance fiction: two polar opposites that - through their own inherent differences - unavoidably come together during their own respective moments of great anguish.  That romance angle is framed, of course, within the world ravaging disease genre that tries to lay on – rather thickly – some existentialist undertones that comments on the fragility of human nature.  The budding romance in the film is handled rather dutifully, if not a bit formulaically, but the manner that PERFECT SENSE hammers home its somber musings – via a narrator – to give a sense of shared human existence comes off with nagging pretentiousness.  PERFECT SENSE takes itself so achingly serious at times that you find yourself scratching your head with fidgety anxiety when you should be emotionally moved by it all. 

Alas, I liked the setting of the film and how it tries – as it does – to tell an intimate story about individuals set against the backdrop of a global calamity.  In Glasgow we are introduced to the two aforementioned souls that will find each other when the world is tearing itself apart around them.  There is Michael (Ewan McGregor) a rather skilled chef that seems to have a really tough time committing to any one woman.  Then there is – conveniently enough – an epidemiologist named Susan (smoky-eyed beauty Eva Green) who, unlike Michael, has just broken up with a long-term boyfriend and now spends her time venting her sadness and frustrations by throwing stones at seagulls (calm down PETA, no seagulls were harmed in this production).  Susan is distracted, so to speak, away from her romantic woes when she begins to notice that many Europeans are starting to develop highly odd conditions – a sudden onset of teary-eyed grief followed by a total loss of smell…hmmmmm. 



When Susan is not researching these strange occurrences with her colleagues she manages to have a meet-cute with Michael, as the restaurant that he works at resides directly below her flat.  One day he asks to bum a cigarette and light from her while she stares outside her window, which she coldly obliges.  More chance encounters follow, which culminates on a date that does not really end as planned for either of them.  They both end of breaking down and crying (the first sign of the disease) and fall asleep in bed together.  The next morning they both realize that they have lost their sense of smell.   

As they begin to peruse a more intimate relationship, the world around them gets ravaged by new symptoms of the mysterious disease: taste goes next for people that feel the onset of the first symptoms, which is preceded by a sensation of incredible hunger that has sufferers everywhere eating just about anything in front of them, which the film shows in disgusting detail (everything from mustard to olive oil to cosmetic products are munched down in a grotesque montage).  As Susan and Michael– not to mention the people of the planet - try to eek out a normal existence with a seriously inconvenient disease, it goes from bad to worse when a loss of taste gives way to uncontrollable fits of rage and then a complete loss of hearing, which leads to the unavoidable breakdown of society as panic begins to settle in.  It’s only a matter of time before the inevitable loss of eyesight comes and turns everyone on Earth into Helen Keller. 

One area that PERFECT SENSE really succeeds in is how it presents a world reacting to the onset of the disease’s symptoms.  For example, since Michael works at a restaurant it becomes much harder to cater to cliental that have no sense of smell, so he and his fellow chefs begin making increasingly spicier foods to appease them.  As people loose their sense of taste, the tactile world of texture becomes very important as customers begin to eat things that allow them to feel the food in their mouths as opposed to tasting them.   The film also shows how humans often associate smells and tastes with collective memory; how do recollections of the past stay with us when we don’t have the ability to process what we smell or taste as triggers to those very events?  PERFECT SENSE does a very fine job of giving us glimpses into what society would do when being dealt with such everyday conundrums in the face of a worldwide disease scare. 

Unfortunately, I failed to find any semblance of dramatic urgency in the relationship between Susan and Michael, which is written with an obligatory eye for tired romantic conventions: initial fondness morphs into love and then misunderstandings and finally into pre-end-credits reconciliation.  Then there is an oftentimes-grating voiceover track – provided by Susan – as she pontificates and makes sweeping and solemn declarations on the meaning of life, the fullness of human experiences, and the ethereal nature of love.  Early on, these ruminations have a spontaneity and poetry about them, but as the film braces down on us the voiceover track becomes an almost unbearable distraction that takes away from the few scenes of stark fascination and raw emotion that the film possesses.   There are times where I wished that I lost my sense of hearing like those unfortunate souls in the film. 

McGregor and Green have such a powerfully unforced chemistry here that you kind of wished they migrated to a different film altogether, so much so that they make PERFECT SENSE’s otherwise mechanically written romance – replete with one hum-dinger of an eye-rolling conclusion, built on spectacular timing and improbable convenience – ring with more authenticity.  PERFECT SENSE has so much going for it that I feel bad chastising what it doesn’t do well.  I found its nightmarish and world-spanning disease premise endlessly compelling and I liked the way it goes away from being about special effects, action, and mayhem – staple and stale elements of global pandemic fiction – from overwhelming its smaller scaled focus on its human element.  Yet, as a character-driven love story the film flounders and feels forced; as an absorbing virus thriller that serves as a thoughtful parable on how we connect to those around us, it comes off as too conceitedly high minded and austerely profound to be thoroughly enjoyed.  PERFECT SENSE, as a result, becomes a a bit too senseless for its own good.

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