PARK CITY - True speculative fiction usually starts with a "What if...?" question and the measure of the story's quality isn't necessarily in the quality of the question, so much as the commitment to answering the question in a way that feels literally, or at least emotionally, honest.
Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by David Mackenzie, the Sundance premiere "Perfect Sense" starts with what could be interpreted as a profoundly silly question.
"What," the movie asks, "would happen if all around the world, people suddenly and inexplicably started losing their sense of smell?"
It almost sounds like a joke, doesn't it? It's like somebody set out to do a parody of José Saramago's "Blindess," which would be a pointless effort, since Fernando Meirelles' 2008 adaptation of "Blindness" already played out like a parody of "Blindness."
Despite a thuddingly bad title -- What, "Senseless" and "Insensitive" were too on-the-nose? -- "Perfect Sense" makes an honest and often worthy attempt to do right by the story of how humanity-in-microcosm would handle a threat to our very senses. It's not quite a parable and it's not quite a realistic roadmap, but "Perfect Sense" is definitely a movie that takes its premise seriously and asks viewers to engage in its questions.
Full review of "Perfect Sense" after the break...
Eva Green stars as Susan, The World's Most Beautiful Epidemiologist (TM). Still smarting from a recent breakup, the Glasgow-based Susan is distracted by a strange case involving a truck driver who was first struck by an uncontrollable wave of misery and then, after recovering from that mood swing, found himself unable to smell. It's not normally her kind of case, but similar cases are popping up around Europe and soon around the world.
Meanwhile, we also meet Michael (Ewan McGregor), a local chef with intimacy and commitment issues.
Like I said, "Blindness" isn't quite a parable, but it's darned close. Michael's restaurant is directly beneath Susan's window and soon these two people with their difficulties making real connections are being drawn together by a confusing wave of maladies that impact both their emotions and then their senses.
"Perfect Sense" isn't an "Andromeda Strain"-style race-for-the-cure thriller. Susan's job is important mostly insofar as it shows the powerlessness of modern medicine in the face of something inexplicable and unstoppable. Michael's occupation, which incorporates all of the senses, is far more crucial in what is a story about resilience and coping.
Although "Perfect Sense" also isn't a twist-driven mystery, I'm hesitant to provide any additional details. Your best chance to be moved by "Perfect Sense" is to go in with a clean slate, though that may also be your best chance to find the movie worthy of ridicule. For the most part, the first sense the filmmakers eliminated was the sense of humor. Although the Susan and Michael make occasional jokes, nothing in the movie's overall tone winks at the audience. You have to believe that this is a world in which people are first overwhelmed by sadness and then cease to be able to smell. How does this impact people's hygiene? How does it impact the way they enjoy food or sex?
Sex and food are the two cores of the movie, partially because as multi-sensory experiences go, they're experiences that tend to utilize all five senses, but also because or main characters are played by Eva Green and Ewan McGregor, who actors who seem to have nudity requirements written into their contracts. So as people begin to suffer from faulty senses, they tern to food and communal dining experiences and they also, if Susan and Michael are any indication, turn to carnality to bridge any gaps.
By focusing on those two sensory activities/aspects, "Perfect Sense" positions itself as a film that's about passions and how passions are central to the way humanity might cope with this kind of event. But in focusing on passions, it's clear that the movie also turns away from rationality. There are snippets of government responses and whatnot, but this isn't the version of the story that would turn its true intentions to, say, the decline of social institutions and the installation of martial law. That would be a different movie. This is the "How would people behave?" movie more than the "How would our institutions of power react?" movie.
For the most part, "Perfect Sense" is almost a two-hander. Green and McGregor are the only developed characters and both actors do strong work with parts that build to one emotional high-wire moment after another. Green has a couple good moments with an under-utilized Stephen Dillane, while McGregor has a welcome "Trainspotting" reunion with Ewen Bremner, who contributes a few funny moments.
"Perfect Sense" is a movie where you have to be willing to go along with its journey and I mostly was. I was constantly aware of the movie's very rigorous structure/progression, but I never tired of pondering the questions it raised. In terms of comparable recent pieces of speculative fiction, I'd place "Perfect Sense" a good distance behind "Children of Men," but a good distance ahead of the "Blindness" feature.