(Adam Whyte’s Edinburgh 2011 Film Festival review re-posted)
If you’ve ever wondered how the apocalypse will affect the restaurant business, here is the movie for you. It opens with an infection being detected in various people who seem to have little in common; it doesn’t appear to be contagious, but everyone seems to be getting it. The first sign is that their sense of taste disappears. Next, their hearing is affected. You can probably see where this is going.
Ewan McGregor’s character, Michael, works in a fancy Glasgow restaurant. When people start losing their taste he is surprised to discover they still dine out for the social experience. The message seems to be: bad things happen, but life goes on. If you’ve missed this message, don’t worry, as the film repeats it for the remainder of the running time. Michael grows close to Susan, a scientist exploring the supposed virus. She narrates the movie, with her thoughts playing out over montages of the world basically corroding as the virus takes over. These montages, and her pseudo-philosophical, optimistic voiceover, perfectly evoke a mobile phone advert.
In an early scene, Michael kicks Susan out of bed; he likes to sleep alone. This will be explained later by a tragedy in his past, but he will learn to deal with it. Because bad things happen, but life goes on. Incidentally Eva Green is high on my list of people not to kick out of bed, but then, I’m not Ewan McGregor. The relationship between the two will be tested as society goes to pot. They represent a microcosm: they are Man and Woman, and Love will be tested by the oncoming Chaos. Meanwhile the virus is clearly really the virus of contemporary society, or capitalism, or ennui, or alienation, or whatever the hell else you want it to be.
This type of story more commonly inspires thriller or horror movies; that this movie is neither is not a criticism. But thriller and horror movies have been able to deal with the symbolism that is so heavy-handed in this movie for years, as part of their subtext. Seldom, if ever, are such movies as pretentious as Perfect Sense is, yet they convey all of this movie’s meaning. There is no sense of dread or panic, and the director, David Mackenzie, is so preoccupied with what it all means that there’s no real sense of a comprehensive threat; the characters are too busy being symbolic to be interesting in their own right, and the virus is too busy being metaphorical to be ominous.
I’m a fan of Mackenzie’s work; Young Adam and Hallam Foe are both well worth checking out. As with those the film is very proficient on a technical level; it looks really good. However the style may be a problem too; it might have worked if it weren’t so heavily aestheticised. The characters in his earlier films were difficult and not necessarily sympathetic, but they were engaging. Here they are pawns in the filmmakers’ hands; when we notice they’re being used to make a point, it’s hard to care about them as individuals, and my emotional attachment was nil. Mackenzie’s exploration of sex and sexuality in the past has been intriguing, but here even that falls flat; there’s nothing as memorable as the combination of sex and custard in Young Adam.
I don’t mind heavy symbolism; just last week I was raving about how good The Turin Horse is, which is clearly about more than it seems to be about. But something fundamental and organic is missing here. I thought Turin Horse created a sense of mystery around it; it didn’t spell anything out, but grew in the mind after seeing it. It created a sense of beautiful ambiguity. Perfect Sense, for all its posturing, seemed to me a very simple fable, and it didn’t work on its own terms. Its alternation between the darkness of the human soul and the endurance of the human spirit was mechanical and repetitive. Bad things happen, but life goes on. Maybe it should have been called “Common Sense.”
Perfect Sense is out now in the U.K.