Over the years, cinema has presented many theories as to the particulars of mankind’s demise.
It could come in the form of vast, scientifically improbable tsunamis and cataclysmic tectonic shifts. Or, perhaps, a bubonic pandemic that transforms humans into a slobbering pack of mumbling, skin-eating loco-carrion. And there is also possibility that the West’s relentlessly jingoistic realpolitik could finally spark the all-ending nuclear catastrophe (you know, the one that successive governments have somehow tried to prevent by, er, making more bombs) that finally leaves the planet free for The Machines to rule as they see fit.
David McKenzie’s Perfect Sense troubles itself with none of this hackneyed, Hollywood piffle. We do indeed – following a series of debilitating global events – witness the total breakdown of society, yet the precise origins of this descent of man remain ambiguous. Never intended to be considered alongside Emmerich’s apocalypses (or, indeed, Romero’s), the film uses global catastrophe merely as a canvas on which to paint an allegorical love story. And despite an ostensibly sci-fi premise, Perfect Sense is, first and foremost, a romance, albeit a somewhat melancholic one. After all, romance frequently gels with comedy and drama – why not sci-fi?
Casino Royale’s Eva Green plays Susan, a talented epidemiologist called in to consult on the case of a truck driver who, without reason, broke down in a fit of hysterical despair. As rapidly as this emotional spasm had sprung it receded, leaving the man exactly as he was, only without his sense of smell. Generally symptomatic of cases of brain damage, this particular case is of interest to Susan because similar occurrences – involving completely unrelated individuals – have been reported right across the globe.
Despite her successes in her scientific career, Susan’s personal life is decidedly less successful than her professional. Following the demise of another failed relationship, she meets Ewan McGregor’s charismatic Michael, a talented chef and perennial jack-the-lad, who’s sexually proliferate lifestyle is the outward manifestation of a past indiscretion, about which he feels none too proud. The two begin a passionate romance in earnest while the newly named Severe Olfactory Syndrome (S.O.S) spreads.
Their burgeoning affair blossoms inversely to the panic gripping the planet, as mankind finds a way to adjust to life with only four senses. In one wonderful scene (that may sound a little hokey, but it isn’t) the two encounter a street performer painting the plethora of aromas from a forest with music from her violin. This sense, she explains, is so evocative of memory that its loss is of greater significance than we might first think. McKenzie conveys this beautifully, with a dreamlike sequence of slideshow memories flashing across the screen, a sense once taken for granted, now sorely missed.
Yet its loss is not insurmountable, and mankind adapts, until people across the globe begin collapsing in states of utter, paralysing terror. This is immediately replaced with the ravenous compulsion to eat or drink whatever they can find. Lipstick, dead pigeons, vegetable oil – all manner of the edible and the barely so are enthusiastically ingested in a global feeding frenzy both voyeuristically entertaining yet extremely disquieting. And then, in unison, the people wake from this manic episode, bemused, disgusted, and without a sense of taste.
Following this second catastrophe, the film charts Michael and Susan’s growing reliance on each other as the world around them shrinks, along with the declining number of senses with which they can experience it. And holding the whole thing together is McGregor who rarely gets to exhibit so many facets of his acting range. He and Green are also a compelling couple, in both the highs and the cavernous lows, and their watchability is essential for a film such as this to work.
The romantic element evolves plausibly and, crucially, the characters are likeable enough (despite their flaws) to care about. Ably assisted by a strong supporting cast, including a typically affable Ewan Bremner (as McGregor’s friend and colleague James) and McGregor’s uncle (Wedge Antilles himself) Dennis Lawson as his boss, Perfect Sense spends much more time developing its characters than the catastrophe that befalls them.
McKenzie attempts to lead you through disaster via the inward-facing window of their microcosm, and much like M Night Shyamalan’s oft-derided Signs, the scale of catastrophe is largely implied. Mainly, the film aims to portray how Michael and Susan each find an emotional counterpoint they weren’t even aware they were looking for, and as such the film is much more intimate fare than its globe-spanning premise may suggest.
This is not to say Perfect Sense is totally bereft of cinematic ambition. When infrequent scenes of violence or global upheaval do make an appearance they are jarring in their incongruous, Cuaron-esque flair. McKenzie’s regular director of photography Giles Nuttgens sees that the film is always immaculately shot, in whichever style a particular scene demands, one second kookily mounted on the handlebars of McGregor’s bike, and in the next a steadicam swirling smoothly around a chaotic kitchen or coolly surveying the dying and deserted streets of Glasgow.
Unfortunately, the problems Perfect Sense has do not lie in its narrowed scope, but in its pacing. It never satisfactorily manages to tie up the two strands of the genres it is trying to conjoin and, weighing in at around 90 minutes, it isn’t a long film, but it certainly feels like one. The languid passage from one event to the next is often only interspersed by what is, when all pretense is stripped away, a fairly standard romantic yarn, and it feels as though the film could do to be stripped of some of its extraneous scenes.
And, because the apocalyptic element is never in the foreground, Susan’s initial involvement in finding the cause of the pandemic suddenly ceases half way through the film, making her character’s occupation oddly irrelevant in the grander scheme, and therefore somewhat superfluous.
The emphasis on the relationship over the catastrophe also (intentionally) removes any sense of closure come the credits. Audiences are not so churlish and stupid to expect a complete tying of loose ends, and sure, the film’s point has been made by the time the credits roll, but the point is a vague one and may leave some who wandered into the cinema expecting more of the popcorn apocalypse feeling more a little unsatisfied. Perfect Sense is not a disaster film, and never pretends otherwise, but unfortunately the chaotic scenes are the film’s best, and it is not with these that it is primarily concerned.
Its most fascinating insights delve into mankind’s erratic behaviour under extreme social duress, and the film is peppered with intriguing asides (such as how McGregor’s job as a chef is salvaged despite taste being but a memory) which help to accentuate the thought within the layers of Kim Fupz Aekeson’s script. In turns optimistic and candidly despairing of human nature, Perfect Sense repeatedly relegates many of its most interesting ideas to the background.
As a low-budget sci-fi/romance, Perfect Sense succeeds on many levels, yet its parts add up to an amorphic whole, which both sprints and sombrely crawls to a denouement that is both touching and more than a little frustrating. However when it works it works well, and despite its flaws it is a well made and well acted film, made with considerable intelligence and heart.
While there is plenty to recommend, Perfect Sense doesn’t truthfully excel as either romance or sci-fi, and never quite becomes greater than the sum of its disparate parts, so instead of getting two great films we simply get one pretty good one.