Perfect Sense is one of those clever, minor, almost-good films saved by Ewan McGregor. (It’s kind of shocking how many there are: how about Rogue Trader, Stay and I Love You Phillip Morris for starters?) This one is a too self-consciously poetic yet more ambitious variation on Contagion, with McGregor and Eva Green as lovers who meet at the start of some unexplained blight sweeping across Glasgow.
Susan is, conveniently, an epidemiologist and Michael is a chef. And the first symptoms of the disease are deep depression followed by the loss of the sense of smell – very bad news for a chef.
They are not among the first victims though, and as we see them meet and gradually come together we also see the bizarre stages of the disease. The second stage is terror followed by the loss of taste buds, and the pattern continues, attacking the emotions and the physical senses in a chilling wave all the more frightening because it doesn’t seem contagious. (Maybe they should have called in House, who has sometimes diagnosed happiness as a symptom of disease.)
The way this mysterious plague attacks both mind and body is the most original part of the story, written by the Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by David Mackenzie, who also directed McGregor and Tilda Swinton in the taut, powerful Young Adam. This is not another apocalyptic movie about how the world ends; it’s about how life changes yet goes on. Unfortunately, the film comes with Green’s world-weary flashback voiceover about how life changes yet goes on. “There is darkness,” she says at the start over a black screen, then as the image of a city appears, “There is light. . . . There are restaurants, disease, there’s work, traffic, the days as we know them,” to which you can only respond “Uh-oh.” Her lifeless performance never displays a bit of the passion the situation calls for, even for a restrained character like Susan.
Yet McGregor, with no apparent effort, anchors the film and convinces us that Michael will give up his one-night-stands for Susan, who is just as reluctant to have a real lover instead of a casual partner. The trajectory of their relationship is as predictable as the stages of the disease are startling. McKenzie handles the screenplay with as much naturalism as possible and prevents the film from tipping into preciousness, but just barely.
The film is one of those multinational productions that sounds like the U.N. invested, so there are lots of Danish and Scottish and British actors running around, including Connie Nielsen as Green’s sister (really?), Stephen Dillane as her boss at the lab, and Ewen Bremner as McGregor’s colleague in the kitchen. That kind of finance-driven mix never quite blends, but then none of their characters has very much to do.
I suppose if you could combine the sensitivity and originality of Perfect Sense with the urgency of Contagion, you might get one great film. As it is, Perfect Sense is worth watching for its ambition and for McGregor, who shows once more how he can shoulder a small film virtually alone. If you want to see him as part of a more successful whole, catch up with Beginners or wait (not very long) for Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. (Here's my enthusiastic review.)
Perfect Sense is on VOD now and will be in theaters in Feb.