The wonder of Perfect Sense is that, by exaggerating the notion of sensory compensation, it allows us to bypass the roadblocks of scientific accuracy (or lack thereof) and focus intently on the poignant core of the story. Sensory compensation has by and large been romanticized for the blind, namely in the thinking that the loss of sight would automatically heighten a person’s ability to hear. As a fable, this movie shows not the slightest interest in what new research on that subject suggests. Instead, it confronts us with a scenario that may not be likely or even possible but still has the power to register emotionally. It poses several important questions. How would an individual cope with the gradual loss of all but one sense? How would society cope if these losses were on a global scale? What does it mean to live and love under this particular set of circumstances?
The answer to the last question resonates strongest of all, and it will continue to resonate long after the film is over. Whether or not it ends on an optimistic note is open for debate. What is evident at that point is a profound sense of peace and acceptance. One could even interpret it as happiness. The challenge is not to understand what the filmmakers are feeling, but to actually feel it as they do. There’s no question that the story is elegiac, and yet I believe we’re given reason to hope, for we know that people are capable of the most astounding changes, even in the throes of unimaginable hardship. The final line of dialogue, provided by narrator Kathryn Engels, exemplifies the notion that perception shapes reality, especially in the face of tragedy. You can either be defeated by it or learn to adapt. You can also die trying, which, in its own somber way, is still a victory.
Taking place in Scotland, the story is set against the backdrop of an international pandemic of sensory loss. Is it a virus? A toxin? Is it airborne? Is it contagious? No one can pinpoint a cause, and it spreads too quickly for anyone to discover a cure. The condition is such a mystery that only its stages are designated names. The first few are long-winded medical terms; the last one is a simple, honest, direct term that, in all likelihood, only the audience is privy to. Two characters will meet. One is Susan (Eva Green), an epidemiologist who has had rotten luck with men. The other is Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef who has no trouble having sex and yet cannot sleep with another person in his bed. They fall in love, although the process will repeatedly change as their senses are robbed one by one.
Each loss is preceded by uncontrollable physical and emotional reactions. Overwhelming despair and hysterical crying indicates that you will lose the ability to smell. A primal hunger signals the end of taste. I really do mean primal; people the world over are suddenly struck with an unruly, almost zombie-like urge to greedily consume anything and everything in sight, from raw meat to flowers to live animals to jars of mayonnaise to jugs of cooking oil to tubes of lipstick. Rage and brute force mark the loss of hearing. Just before blindness sets in, you’re caught up in the revelry of unbridled happiness. We watch as people smile broadly, hug unreservedly, laugh with their friends and family, play joyful games, let go of their mature inhibitions, and simply appreciate the simple pleasures of being alive.
Each stage is surprisingly compelling in the way it reveals humanity’s resilience. They naturally begin in a state of chaos, but they soon lead to a period of adjustment and eventually to complete acceptance. The most fascinating scenes take place after the loss of taste. All restaurants, including Michael’s, remain open, for people have learned to appreciate food in an entirely new way. It’s no longer about flavor; it’s about savoring the textures and absorbing the sounds of crunching and snapping and biting. It’s about the ambient noises of glasses clinking and silverware hitting ceramic plates. For Susan and Michael, the loss of taste has brought their relationship to a sensuous new level. They don’t simply make love, they engage in an orgy of tactile pleasure. When they bathe, they explore new oral possibilities by nibbling a bar of soap and lapping up shaving lather.
When deafness sets in, director David Mackenzie adds interest by killing all sound, including Max Richter’s score, for several minutes. Like the characters, we can only react to visual stimuli – with the disheartening certainty that even they will soon be gone forever. It’s obvious that smell, taste, sound, and sight are not absolutely necessary in order to love someone. But are they necessary for survival? Perfect Sense does not attempt to directly answer this question. It does, however, provide us with the hope that such a thing is possible. Simultaneously, it states that, even if it isn’t possible, people can still die content, for they know that they were loved. In either case, a positive message has been sent. Positive on the basis of my perception, at least. I don’t presume to know or even ask what your perception is.
Presently, science fiction is undergoing a bit of a renaissance in theatres. There’s been a trend for a number of years now to produce films which have stronger ties of very human messages. With motion pictures like DISTRICT 9, MONSTERS, CLOVERFIELD, and even 2011’s BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, writers and directors have been spinning tales about the increasing human cost to our sci-fi encounters with the unknown. Some of them have focused more heavily on the action quotient, … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more