In 'Perfect Sense,' a love story between two damaged people is set against the backdrop of a mysterious epidemic that affects the emotions and the senses. It works like an epileptic fit: The first wave is a great outpouring of grief and loss, with memories returning of everything you ever loved and every person you ever hurt -- the things that haunt you when you're alone at night in the dark. And then you lose your sense of smell, effectively severing that most direct tie between sense and memory forever.
This, in a way, is how Susan (Eva Green) and Michael (Ewan McGregor) fall in love. He's a cad, and she's been hurt too much to let her guard down. Instead, she focuses on her work as an epidemiologist. She's just begun seeing cases of this new syndrome, but she and her colleagues decide there's no real cause for alarm ... yet. One night after work, Michael convinces Susan to let him cook her dinner -- he's a chef at the restaurant whose back door faces her apartment building -- and midway through the meal, Susan is overcome with grief. Michael hurries her home, and they spend the night together; almost by osmosis or suggestion, Michael also experiences the first wave of this syndrome, and the next morning neither of them can smell their coffee.
One by one, emotions pour forth and senses disappear as our two lovers grow closer. Is it despite or because of the mysterious plague that these people are connecting? Would they have ever connected without that vast outpouring of grief and disconnection from the past?
The course of the syndrome -- terror followed by ravaging hunger and then the loss of taste; explosive hate followed by hearing loss, and so forth -- somehow mimics the ups and downs of their relationship. As the narrator reminds us, life goes on. People find new ways to feel things. Food gets spicier, crunchier, more about texture or just the pleasure of pouring wine into a glass; music becomes about feeling the bass through your body. People try to prepare for what might come next, but basically they just try and go about their business as usual as best they can. Life goes on. We adapt. Susan and Michael lose themselves in each other, although not being able to smell your lover's skin or taste their kisses is bittersweet indeed.
The symbolism of the syndrome is somewhat contrived, and no actual theories are presented as to what triggered it or its basis in nature. Is it mystical? Is there any science -- even fake movie science -- that could link the different lobes of our brain that light up for anger, love, grief, or terror with physical symptoms? The narrator provides quite a bit of expository dialogue, which wobbles between poetic and necessary in some cases -- after all, you can't really show people losing their sense of smell -- and somewhat repetitive.
In the end, though, what carries 'Perfect Sense' is its direction, its cinematography, the poetry of its images, and the wild, raw, sensual performances put forth by its cast. Certain scenes are unforgettable: when the terrifying wave of the syndrome hits Susan, she's in the parking lot at her car, and as a woman tries to help her, they are both overcome with hunger. The woman eats her lipstick; Susan rips into the bouquet of flowers the woman had been holding and gnaws on the buds. Across town, Michael and his fellow chefs are stuffing themselves with horrible concoctions -- spoonfuls of mustard from the jar, raw fish with their bare hands, what looks like an industrial strength bottle of syrup, anything within reach. And then it passes, and they all snap out of it, wondering why they're covered in condiments and nauseated.
Director David Mackenzie uses footage from around the world to show people from every culture experiencing this epidemic, united as they fall apart. Eventually Glasgow looks like it's been overrun by wild animals; stores have been looted, trash bins overthrown, people gripped by anger storm the streets and riot, and the people who end up deaf are told to stay in their houses where it's safe. This is a grim love story indeed. Yet, as the narrator tells us, life goes on. Some people choose to loot stores, but others still go in and do their jobs, if only because they don't know what else to do but keep going.
Dark and strikingly beautiful, strange and occasionally a touch silly, 'Perfect Sense' is not a perfect movie, but it's worth seeking out for its unique vision that is hard to shake long after you've left its world behind.