Without warning you are inconsolable, grief rips you apart, you are overwhelmed by what might have been, ghosts of past lovers, shadows and memories of the departed. You are poleaxed. Bus drivers come to a stop and sob at the wheel. People howl at the sky. A traffic warden falls to her knees and weeps uncontrollably in a bright sunny street.
Your world of recollection is under assault. Memories are fragmenting. Then without any warning, your sense of smell vanishes. Suddenly you are asnomic. The one sense linked directly to memory, the slideshow and album of who you are, the elusive movie flickering with faces, places, sounds and scents. Gone.
This is the disturbing scenario played out in David McKenzie’s poignantly crafted film ‘Perfect Sense’, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green tentatively trying to love as the world falls away from them. It is described as sci-fi/thriller. It is really neither. There are elements of both, but it is essentially a love story, of complex and painful love, born against the odds, a race against oncoming darkness. It is also an atmospheric exploration of our relationship with our senses and how they connect to us to each other and the world around us.
The sci-fi references refer to the unknown virus that suddenly appears across the globe causing the initial symptoms of grief and asnomia. It doesn’t kill, but infiltrates the world, causing crashing waves of sadness, followed by the loss of smell. With it goes memory. There are periods of adjustment as people seem to adapt and move on, waiting to see what will happen next. The virus moves like SARS or bird flu, quietly, calmly. It is an epidemic, unpredictable, but with momentum and insidious intent.
First, overwhelming grief and then no sense of smell. That’s the disease. They call it Severe Olfactory Syndrome. SOS.
A strange and hypnotic voice over by Kathy Engels narrates the breakdown of world order and associated progression of the virus and its mutations. These global glimpses flicker throughout the film, in clips of film and stills. They are shot beautifully with verve and immediacy. Cut with footage of real war, pandemic coverage and riots, the images lend urgency and despair to the central claustrophobic love story.
Ewan McGregor is cast In Perfect Sense as a lad about town chef, busy, stylish and oddly empty. He is aging well. Chunkier, more sensual. I like him as an actor, I know many don’t. He has a presence and charm on screen and takes risks many actors are not prepared to take. He can be intensely sexual, loving, moving and amusing. He can also be flat, dull and just god-awful. (The Island anyone?). But his work in Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes, The Pillow Book for Peter Greenaway, Young Adam, also by David McKenzie, the more recent and utterly charming Beginners and his fabulously fey southern turn in I love You Phillip Morris have showcased his charm and versatility.
In Perfect Sense he is Michael, charismatic, grinning and full of the banter. Never falling in love, loving sex, loving the ladies, but unable to commit, unable to even sleep in his own bed if there is someone in it with him. He likes to keep his distance. The TV chef style vacancy suits his character; he loves his work, surrounded by a white suited posse of chefs, sous-chefs and underlings. A nice touch is the restaurant owner played by his real-life uncle Denis Lawson.
Eva Green is Susan, an epidemiologist, working at one of the city’s main hospitals. Her apartment overlooks the back of Michael’s restaurant and so fate starts to meddle. She and her colleagues desperately struggle to understand the nature and intent of the virus. I must admit I am not the greatest fan of Eva Green; she can be a cold performer, whose strange predatory beauty is rarely served well on screen. For many she will always be Vesper Lynd. She was truly beautiful and original in the role and made you understand why Bond might mourn and kill forever.
Her French/Swedish mélange gives her a hooded sensuality that calls to mind the dangerous and unsettling magnetism of Charlotte Rampling. But whereas Rampling has always been open to exploring the darkness within, Eva Green has for me been a little disappointing in her career arc to date, relying on a lot of nudity and rather blunt performances. Her role in Sparks, directed by Jordan Scott last year was excellent however, playing an enigmatic teacher causing sensual mayhem at an all girls school. A kind of debauched Miss Brodie. Her oddness and detachment serve her well in Perfect Sense. She haunts the film. Unable to have children and filled with memories of a father she adored, she is emotionally adrift and buried in her research.
Susan and Michael’s tentative courtship and deepening love plays out against the viral backdrop of the sensory epidemic as the worlds slips slowly into degrees of panic and recovery. There is no closure, no predictability, and no patterns. Just a disturbing certainty that one by one the senses will erode and vanish.
It is a simple yet shattering premise. A global sensory loss. Watching it unfold through the lens of Susan and Michael’s relationship is very moving, as they stumble into their love, ignite it and fight to keep it burning as all the normal markers of everyday life and living are stripped away.
The virus rolls across the world like water. Susan and Michael are weighed down by memory. Her father, his guilty visits to his mother’s grave. Their strained and fevered sexual encounters. As is usual with these films, a lot of time is spent convincing you that beautiful people are essentially unhappy. It does not quite pull that off, but Eva Green does melancholy rather beautifully with her baleful eyes and flattened out delivery of lines. There are moments however when she smiles; it feels like sun burning through rain.
McGregor stumbles a little with the big emotions from time to time; they play out a little too obviously across his face and delivered with the eager shine of drama school role-playing. But he grows into his persona and as his feelings really take hold and he realises what he might lose and what it left to hold onto, he becomes quiet hypnotic to watch, digging into something primal to express his last chance at loving someone.
The virus defines them. They are witnesses to each other’s debilitating grief. She weeps for the memory of her father who called everyone sailor. He cries next to her in the dark of the bed. In the morning, they calmly realise their sense of smell has vanished and their world has shifted forever. It is startling to watch and reminds us how connected to the sense of smell we are. With its loss goes a myriad connections to the past.
The greater loss are the memories that are no longer triggered. Smell and memory are connected in the brain. Cinnamon might’ve reminded you of your grandmother’s apron. The scent of cut hair could evoke a childhood fear of cows. Diesel oil might bring back memories of your first ferry crossing. Without smell, an ocean of past images disappears.
The world rages. More senses fail. Cities weep, riot and slowly crumble. All this is seen in a series of reportage flashes intercut with glimpses of Michael and Susan struggling to work and love as the parameters of routine are eaten away. There are attempts at normality, re-adjustment. Smell becomes texture and sound. There is a wonderful scene where a street performer engages a group of people including Michael and Susan with music and touch; she uses a leaf drawn across a cheek, pungent words, a bow quivering on strings to evoke the smells of the forest where the leaf might have once hung.
Things become ultra sweet, ultra sharp. The sounds of the restaurant are thrown more sharply into focus, the sound of place settings, wine in the glass, a knife on a plate, conversation. McKenzie and his cinematographer Gilles Nuttgen use some luminous images, a multitude of simple yet complex concepts. Fluttering trash, masked cyclists, sunlit pipe bands, a love of shadowed rooms, religious fanatics, doomsayer’s tears and feverish skin.