Film Review, Perfect Sense
Sundance Film Festival review originally published in the Deseret News and for the Sundance Institute Newsletter)
It’s not often we get the chance to simply gush about great artistry and the magic of cinema, but today I had the amazing opportunity to see a World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival: the first ever showing of Perfect Sense, a new film by director David Mackenzie and starring Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) and Eva Green (The Dreamers).
There is something to be said for the effect a premier can have one one’s appreciation of a film. There’s a buzz, the palpable energy of old Hollywood, that still lingers within these debuts. Sitting in the same theater with critics, industry professionals, cinema lovers, and the artists behind the work itself is truly an intoxicating experience. You aren’t there to swill popcorn or escape the drudgery of the day to day. You are there to celebrate the collaboration of hundreds of artists who, through a unified vision and a belief in something beyond themselves, managed to distill all of their creative energies into 10,000 feet of celluloid and the shot at a lasting legacy in the collective minds and hearts of a movie-going public. It is, to put without hyperbole, sublime.
Would I have liked Perfect Sense as much as I did were it not for the ambiance and expectation of tonight’s premier? It is tough to say and, to be honest, it hardly matters. It was an experience — one which you owe to yourself during these waning days of the 2011 festival.
Without delving into the finer points of what will likely seem a complex plot, a brief overview is all that is needed to put this review in the proper framework.
The film portrays a global pandemic as it is about to shatter the world and irrevocably change the human race. The first symptom of this disease is an emotional breakdown, the brain responding to the first stages of infection, by frying the receptors in its limbic system. Those who are infected flare up with overpowering grief, sadness, despair. Then, almost as if an internal switch is thrown, their sense of smell fails. It is this touchstone moment of emotion before the loss of one of the five senses, which brings the two main characters together and it is their shared experience of a planet-wide neurological disorder that brings us into the film. One by one, emotions rage, and other senses fail. Taste, followed by hearing… and finally in the last crushing blow to a society struggling to hold on: sight is stolen away by the disease.
If this plot sounds too much like an end-of-the-world-science-fiction trope, or derivative of a nail-biting season finale of House, fear not, it is merely the backdrop for an exploration of the human condition. The film asks the question: what makes us who we are? We are fragile, unstable creatures at our best, but sometimes resilient and courageous when put to the worst. The science behind the epidemic is never explained and there’s no pretense of curing it. So quickly do the symptoms show themselves, that the film’s inhabitants are left with little more than to make the most out of the time left and strive to achieve something beyond their base instincts. They are left in the fight against this crushing illness to champion their souls and to mourn the loss of that with which they have identified for so long.
If you are familiar with Scottish Director David Mackenzie’s early works, the outline of the film’s premise makes it fairly easy to see why he chose to bring Danish writer, Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay to life. Mackenzie’s seminal works have laid the foundations for the new resurgence of Scottish film. While contemporary and far more mass appeal-centric Scotsman, Danny Boyle, enlivens his films with bold color, sharp edits, and a signature kinetic energy, Mackenzie chooses to wash his films in the rust of the Edinburgh shipping lanes, blanket them in the heavy slate sky of the highlands, and dampen each soul within his camera’s frame with the weight of the world. In films like Asylum and Young Adam his lens is a dystopian one, tackling a somber reality and exploring the depths of human weakness with an unflinching, if almost depraved honesty. Then, he went on to direct an Ashton Kutcher sex comedy. For that, we can forgive him, because Perfect Sense brings him back to form.
His fellow collaborators rise to the artistic merits of this piece as well. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who we can all agree owes us many more great films like this to make up for lensing the worst film of all time, Battlefield Earth) gives this film a clarity and gentle depth of field that allows the viewer to sink into the story and goes on to highlight the emotional and psychological pay-offs of the dynamic plot. Composer Max Richter, one of the unsung stars of his craft, brings about a gentle piano score. It serves the story in the best possible way: never intruding, only elevating. Star Ewan McGregor also puts forth some of his best work to date. His previous collaboration with Mackenzie brought us Young Adam, and with the same visual tableau on display here, it could have been easy to start seeing shades of that unsettling character when this particular story deserved a much subtler approach. Eva Green is perfectly cast. Her striking features and cool, collected demeanor can sometimes be so visually arresting and emotionally blunt that she distracts. But here she plays to her natural strengths as an actress and serves as a bellwether for the societal apocalypse to come.
We follow these two characters, McGregor a chef, Green an epidemiologist brought to Scotland to study the mysterious illness, through the stages of breakdown, the loss of senses one by one. We see the world spiraling out of control through their heroic struggle to hold on, to enjoy a meal without smell or taste, to take the time to appreciate a church bell’s ringing or a child crying, knowing it may well be the last time they hear anything at all. Around them we see the slow breakdown of the human condition for some: rioting, chaos, the loss of will. But we also see reminders of our strengths. People dining out not for the food, but just for the pure experience of buying someone else a drink and being waited on. Or later in the film, lone citizens walking the streets after a riot, resetting bikes on their racks or stridently sweeping up glass shards; refusing to let the gradual loss of their senses define who they are as people.
The film itself makes several bold choices. When the pandemic begins to affect the sense of hearing, the sound drops out, and yes when the illness finally takes away one’s sight, the screen goes dark as well; but the film plays on. It’s a bit tough to describe any further, as that would be giving away too much. Remember, this is not about a film about curing disease; it is a film about who we are as people. Rather surprisingly considering his previous films and the dark subject matter her prefers to explore, David Mackenzie seems to think there is a lot to champion about humanity. Despite all our imperfections, there is a little spark of something pure and almost holy within each of us that isn’t defined by how we interpret the world, or, quite literally, how we sense it. It is a spark defined and strengthened by what we do. When everything else is going wrong around you and the world is slowly fading to dark, what one does in that exact moment is what defines a soul.
The film’s answer to that final question is a brilliant one, laced with raw emotion and with a finale that is sure to strike deeply into the heart of any lover of the human spirit.