I watched Perfect Sense instead of reading for my seminar last week. Its by no means perfect but a powerful and intimate riff on the “end of the world” film.
Directed by David MacKenzie, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, Perfect Sense has more than a hint of many contemporary dystopian dramas such as Contagion and Never Let Me Go, as well as significant echos of the current trend of Scandinavian crime dramas; Wallander and Forbrydelsen (The Killing). That’s no coincidence, as the writer, one Kim Fupz Akeson, had set his script in Denmark but decided that it wasn’t an authentic location for a tale of consumerist meltdown and populist hysteria- so he moved it to a city he felt was already in a state of moral and social collapse- Glasgow.
The film is a societal pestle and mortar- combining two unseen scenes of social service, a restaurant and a medical lab, and grinding together their narrative outcomes with the crushing influence of a mysterious, global loss of sense. Each loss of sense is preceded by a violent expression of emotion- the effects of which are as terrifying and destructive as the loss of smell, taste, sound and sight in that order- with ever looming a future where touch, too is gone. A film cannot accurately express this loss without ceasing to exist- but is that where mankind is headed?
Some dodgy directorial choices can make the cinematography more a hindrance than a help, but once Mackenzie has been deprived of the luxuries of natural sense-textures, he finds his groove. An obvious low-budget has forced his hand- in many places, this is a great thing and really enhanced the intimate naturalism. The kitchen scenes were wonderfully immersive, and restricting much of the movement to slow internal pans and sweeps across living spaces made intimacy feel like a commodity that was rapidly being encroached on. However, there were definitely bits where stepping back and losing a couple of cute camera setups would’ve made the film as a whole more convincing.
The medical elements of the film were convincing and well crafted, but the performances were wooden. Reversely, The culinary elements often felt contrived, but were convincingly shot and acted. Like the director McGregor and Green together became stronger as they lost parts of themselves. They are not likable characters- They manage to repel everybody, even each other, with their selfishness, their self-pity. It was the right choice, as sympathy for their physical loss and conviction in their coming-together is not immediate. They are two people, surviving. Despite their film-star credentials, all the egotism and duplicity one expects from actors in “hero” roles is displaced by the ebb and flow of a convincing relationship in an unnatural environment.
The environment becomes more and more compelling as senses are removed from the audience’s perception. Taste and smell are hard to represent on screen, but McGregor and his kitchen concoct masterpieces of texture and sound that make eating an experience again. With the loss of sound the film truly finds its stride, though. Mackenzie isolates the audience in the same way each character is isolated and suddenly, the cold, lonely cinematography finds its vogue. The loss of each sense allows us to experience the same settings and scenarios in fresh ways- a fantastic use of budgetary restriction on locations. With the loss of sound comes the film’s denouement and climax; as McGregor and Green realise they have a finite amount of time together before they are robbed of all sense of each other.
Subsequently, the final scene was absolutely stunning. I have rarely felt so tense in a final reel. The cinematography, the musical choices, the performances: together, they are overwhelming in their composition. That is all I will say on it- but as a friend, Julius, put it, the film is worth watching for that final scene alone.
Its interesting that the film is, sensually speaking, incomplete. The sense of touch remains at the close; admittedly, it would be impossible to truly articulate on screen, but it is the only sense to which there is no explicit reference. Some may think that as a criticism, but the unedifying truth, as someone who has experienced a complete loss of sensation (I was hospitalised in 2008 with severe Guillan-Barre Syndrome), loss of feeling is the most complete destruction of sense, and film simply cannot convey the totality of that final loss of sensation. Give that McGregor and Green’s world is already blind and deaf, for them existence will effectively cease with the loss of touch. That is an ending best left as an unspoken suggestion.
The film functions best when it doesn’t try to emulate other, more expensive movies of the same type. The unique beauty of this Global catastrophe movie is in its resolute anti-global nature. The most powerful representation of the rest of the world is in the brief, terrifying performance of an Asian doctor on webcam: giving the Glaswegian medical team hideous foresight into what is to come, as he experiences the animal-rage that precedes loss of hearing. McGregor escapes this relatively unscathed: his problems are personal, and largely self-inflicted, and thus redemption is a practical narrative arc. Green’s character suffers more: she is evidently afflicted with depression before the pandemic began, and her anger is against a world that, narratively speaking, doesn’t need her rage. Mackenzie rejects any real exploration into her personality (as he does with McGregor) in favour of pseudo-lyrical narration that bookends the film. It really didn’t need it. It diminishes the potency of Green’s character, and the intimate immediacy on which the film relies. Its a disappointing lapse in the overall “personality” of the film.
Don’t let that put you off though. If a few lines spoken by one character don’t suit the character of the film, that shouldn’t make the film a failure, and it doesn’t. Thanks to a perfectly executed final scene, the film really does build, in every sense, to a conclusion that is thought-provoking, troubling, and as a film-goer who seeks solace in the cinema, ultimately cathartic. It’ll make a great alternative to whatever End-Of-The-World movie you were going to watch next.