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Sense and Insensibility

Perfect Sense (2011)

2011 Sundance Film Festival

The sheer clarity of intent and scale of ambition in David Mackenzie's "Perfect Sense" is more than enough to obliterate the memory of his Hollywood misstep "Spread" as if it had never existed. Light years away from that film's glib delve into the lifestyles of adolescents whose world was too beautiful to care about, "Perfect Sense" is an icy fable about adults whose world has decided to shrug them off completely and start afresh.

One clue to the improvement is the appearance in the credits of the name Zentropa, Lars von Trier's production company. "Perfect Sense" is set mostly in Glasgow but written by a Dane, Kim Fupz Aakeson, and has a suitably Scandinavian Lutheran tone about it. Its best moments feel like a direct cross-pollination between Mr. Mackenzie's intellectual approach to the alienation human beings are prone to and the visceral certainty of Mr. von Trier's theory that life equals pain.

The apocalypse that descends upon the world in "Perfect Sense" is a dreadfully intimate one, in which the population start to lose its five senses one after another and is overwhelmed by fits of rage and despair in the process. The cause remains unexplained and is therefore beside the point, as is the likelihood or otherwise of a happy ending. More important is the ebb and flow of the relationship between the characters played by Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, one a chef and the other an epidemiologist — two professions right in the thick of things.

For most of its running time the film veers closer to poetry than sci-fi. It relies far more on images than words and creates moments that mix human dignity and despair in beautiful and awful ways. A shot of Mr. McGregor and Ms. Green sitting in the bath and indulging one of the only shared sensations left to them by eating soap which they cannot taste is one of the great weirdly romantic sights of the year — or possibly ever. The actors turn out to be a perfect fit, Mr. McGregor's nonchalance and Ms. Green's guarded melancholy meshing in exactly the right way to suit the end of the world, with just enough grit in the gears.

"Perfect Sense" is divisive and a long way from a prefabricated crowd pleaser. In fact it will drive some audiences up the wall with its elliptical story and unidentified narrator and the way Mr. Mackenzie jams chilly intellect and coarse passion into the same spaces, whether a comfortable fit or not. But these are exactly the reasons why it works. It's a genre-defying act of cinema, while also pondering what might happen if the only sense organ left working is the human heart. Anyone interested in what goes on in there will find it a bracing experience.


Opens on Oct. 15 in Britain and on Feb. 3,2012 in New York.

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Kim Fupz Aakeson; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Jake Roberts; music by Max Richter; production design by Tom Sayer; costumes by Trisha Biggar ; produced by Gillian Berrie and Malte Grunert; released by Arrow Films (Britain) and IFC Films (United States). Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Ewan McGregor (Michael), Eva Green (Susan), Ewen Bremner (James), Stephen Dillane (Stephen), Denis Lawson (Boss), Anamaria Marinca (Street Performer), Alastair Mackenzie (Virologist), Katy Engels (Narrator) and Connie Nielsen (Jenny).


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