Sunday 2 October 2011

Fade to black: "Perfect Sense"

The trouble with this emergent wave of gadabout directors - let's take David Mackenzie and Michael Winterbottom as the foremost British examples - is that it's too easy to differentiate between the films they mean and the films they don't, and sometimes even the ones they mean don't mean anything very much. After the larky You Instead - tossed off in five days at the T in the Park festival - Mackenzie's Perfect Sense is evidently one of the meant ones: a handsome, widescreen affair with A-list stars, written by the Dogme graduate Kim Fupz Aakeson (Minor Mishaps, In Your Hands), and shot in collaboration with Lars von Trier's Zentropa studios, it limns an apocalyptic scenario somewhere between von Trier's own Melancholia of last week and Fernando Meirelles' globetrotting Blindness, from 2008.

The threat to mankind is initially diagnosed as Severe Olfactory Syndrome, through which sufferers are consumed by sudden, piercing feelings of grief, then suffer the loss of their sense of smell. Cutaways show people breaking down in tears on distant shores - around African townships, Indian slums - but the core of the film is the relationship between a man and a woman on opposite sides of a Glaswegian courtyard: the courting by swanky restaurant chef Ewan McGregor of semi-impossibly beautiful epidemiologist Eva Green, one of those studying the outbreak. Other senses soon follow suit, and vanish: taste goes after a final grande bouffe, as does hearing, then the sense of touch. Finally, you guessed it... Thus we spend much of the film waiting for the power to be cut off one way or another, to be plunged back into the darkness.

In the meantime, Mackenzie serves up a generally diverting study of his chosen locations: a research lab just drab and functional enough to balance out the presence of Eva Green, kitchens where food actually seems to be being prepared, though as is now the norm with screen chefs, McGregor is introduced bellowing "where's that lobster and haggis?" to one or other of his underlings. In linking love and food, Perfect Sense is at least in part this restaurant's story - the chefs are forced to put more spice in their dishes after their patrons' sense of smell goes, and the nature of restaurant reviews is altered forever, reduced to bare-bones descriptions of colour, texture and presentation.

Mackenzie aspires to sensualism, as Winterbottom did in making 9 Songs - nothing else could explain the naff erotica of Eva and Ewan munching on bars of soap in the bathtub - but he ends up fronting the chilly conceptual mechanics of the same director's futureshock Code 46 universe. The gadabout cuts to the fucking because he doesn't have time for any foreplay, being too concerned with the numbers (whether the money going into these films, or what they might produce in turn at the box-office), or simply on bashing another film out, whether good, bad or indifferent: 9 Songs ran to 69 minutes, which was a vaguely amusing joke, funnier than anything in the film itself, but which my research tells me is shorter than the average couple spends on lovemaking every week.

Perfect Sense manages to be less specific still: travelling Euro-stars float around in ill-defined secondary roles (Connie Nielsen is Eva's BFF, Anamaria Marinca a mime), and as for what exactly caused this global outbreak of senselessness, we're invited to take our pick. Enviromental meltdown? The rise of religious fundamentalism? Kim Jong-Il, glimpsed briefly in the archive mix? (The moral of the film would appear thus: mankind would be in considerably better shape if our epidemiologists stopped shagging rakish chefs at moments of crisis, and instead did some actual work.)

The whole movie gives into this generalism, as we come to realise that keening sadness is a trickier state to dramatise than von Trier's melancholia, which could be shaped and expressed in ways other than simply having the characters sit around blubbing; in the end, the film's sudden flurries of emotion and passion (the feeding frenzy preceding the loss of taste, the frequent unveiling of the Green poitrine) feel like devices to hold viewer interest and keep the thing going. The exasperating thing about Perfect Sense is that there's a great film in there somewhere - you spot its DNA in the final scenes, which boil down to a man and a woman, in love despite it all - but it comes to be buried under the residual glumness of a director who's realised he can churn out one film after another without ever threatening to take us (or, indeed, himself) anywhere. Its true subject isn't contagion - which, as an upcoming film by the American gadabout Steven Soderbergh realises, can be tooled for perverse thrills - but a rather more joyless one: compulsion.

Perfect Sense opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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