I thought The Netflix synopsis of “Perfect Sense” (directed by David Mackenzie) made the movie sound gimmicky at best. “With each person around the world slowly losing all five senses, love becomes more valuable than ever?” Aside from imminent sentimentality, this description signaled to me the inevitable deployment of a cheap trick. Yet with Eva Green and Ewan McGregor leading the cast, I thought, show me the maudlin gimmick.
Susan (Green) is an epidemiologist working on this sense-subtracting disease that begins with a few cases and ends up a pandemic. Michael (McGregor) is a talented chef at a high-end restaurant that shares an alley with Susan’s apartment. Both characters are self-admitted assholes who fall in unlikely love while this affliction deconstructs their very personhood (along with everyone else’s on the planet). I don’t need to tell you to balk at my description if I’ve made the movie sound less watchable than Netflix has. Yet I will say that you’ll be missing out if, based on any blurb, you dismiss this movie entirely. “Perfect sense” is a gem that increases in value the longer you look at it. “And what are we really?” it seems to ask. “A number of perceptual senses linked to a narrow spectrum of underlying emotions?” That’s one suggestion it communicates before adding: “You’ve gotta love that.” Prior to losing each sense, victims of this disease experience an uncontrollable surge of emotion: despair before losing smell, ravenousness before taste, rage before hearing, and, ushering in the loss of sight, all-encompassing love and hope. Darkness at last consumes all victims while blindly and silently they cling to loved ones whom they can also neither smell nor taste. Left with only the ability to feel the person beside them, all await the final subtraction (touch) that can only render them lifeless.
Two of the many interesting things about this apocalyptic movie are the disease that sense-by-sense disassembles people, and the adaptive measures people take in order to cope with their ensuing condition. Those who can no longer taste begin to describe food in terms of texture, consistency or with onomatopoeia while artists attempt to reintroduce or at least remember flavour through music. So in a sense, synesthesia becomes a short-term savior. Though the movie provides much food for thought, at heart it’s a love story between Susan and Michael. Remember that. Whether or not their love burgeons as a result of the apocalypse doesn’t matter. We don’t know what causes the disease. Is it environmental? Man-made? Gaia? Aliens? We never find out, so in that respect there’s no didacticism. Neither are we subjected to some cornball yarn about love transcending space and time. The more existential and less literal question we’re left with as a result is: Really, though, what else of any significance is there? I’m reminded of “Poem” by Al Purdy, particularly its last line: “there is nothing at all I can do except hold your hand and not go away.” The sense of helplessness Purdy conveys when the narrator tries to console an ill loved one, a time when nothing can be done for someone other than to provide a loving presence, is nothing if not touching to the reader because of its understated, pragmatic truth. Love, whatever magic it isn’t, we need it, and it feels good. In the same vein, “Perfect Sense” isn’t saying that love intensifies as the disease progresses. It isn’t claiming that with all distractions removed love can be seen for what it is, all-important. Thanks for sparing us those sentiments by the way. Something of what the movie does say is that love, nurturing, care, warmth, whatever you want to call it, as we slowly fall apart, is the one thing we can still manage to express with each, however limited, piece of ourselves we have left—and right up until removal of our last sense snuffs us out. Potentially, perhaps coincidentally, yet for certain thankfully, love also happens to be enough and all we need in perilous times like these.
And if that’s gimmicky then so are we.