Perfect Sense | David Mackenzie | 2011

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Just because I watch films at 7am doesn’t mean that you have to; and unless you’re congenitally optimistic I’d be wary of starting your day with this one. Perfect Sense was one of the first in what has become an ever-expanding list of apocalyptic recent movies, including Melancholia (my favourite), This Is The End, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Seeking A Friend For The End of the World and the beautiful Japanese film Isn’t Anyone Alive?, a funny, tender and deeply moving film that explains better than any documentary the social and psychological effects of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear accident of 2011.

Traumatic times have always triggered traumatic cinema — we recently screened Dr Strangelove, made at the height of the Cold War, at the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival — but in the past there has usually been a sense of human agency: either the disaster is our fault, due to human technology run amok, or the catastrophe is averted by the actions of heroic people at the centre. The recent run of movies is unusual in their sense of sheer helplessness: the apocalypse is coming, and there’s nothing we can do but cling together, and find some comfort where we can. In these films there’s no place for heroes: we’re all trapped in the teeth of the oncoming storm, and the only question is how we behave while we wait. 

It’s a reflection, of course, of a broader malaise: the feeling that, this time, things are different. The economy is technically out of recession, but there’s a sense that the structure itself is now snapped: it’s the equivalent of reassembling a crashed airliner and somehow expecting it to fly. The environment, too, feels like a problem too large to be managed: will a trip to the recycling bin really stop the seas from rising? In the face of such rampaging behemoths, even the most powerful leaders can seem like cavemen waving sticks. As the Tory MP Rory Stewart said recently:

“We pretend we’re run by people. We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere … The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don’t have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don’t have any. None of them have any power … It’s like the wizard of Oz. This is the age of the wizard of Oz, you know. In the end you get behind the curtain and you finally meet the wizard – and there’s this tiny, frightened figure. I think every prime minister has sort of said this since Blair. You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.”

Perfect Sense is an almost suicidally uncommercial movie — which is, by the way, in no sense a criticism  — in its refusal to offer easy answers, or a reassuring ending. Sure it has commercial movie stars: Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play its central on-off lovers, with lovely support from Ewen Bremner and Denis Lawson, who work with McGregor in a high class restaurant, the epitome of sensual delight. But the tone, right from the start, is haunted, and as a mysterious syndrome grips the world, each sense fading one by one, it’s clear that there’s to be no happy ending, no sudden elixir to save the day. Indeed, Green plays an epidemiologist, brought in to investigate this mysterious sickness, but there’s no sense throughout the film that any progress has been made, and certainly no hope of a cure. McGregor and Green are terrific together, his rough energy nicely balanced with her trademark cool amusement, and as the story darkens we feel deeply for them both. Each loss of a physical sense has a related emotional response — grief, hunger, rage — that’s painful to watch and hard to confront, but together lie at the heart of the film.

Perfect Sense is about the things that leaders, heroes and scientists can never solve for us. How can we get through any day knowing that one day will be our last? How can we fall in love when we know that the one we love will die? How can we be cheerful when there’s so much anguish in the world? It’s not by any means an easy watch, but it’s a beautiful, thoughtful and deeply felt film, and it has some of the bracing chill of Ingmar Bergman: it argues that we live more fully by confronting the darkness than by ducking it, and that every day will have more flavour if we acknowledge that our taste will someday fade. It’s not a comfortable message, but it is, in its way, an exhilarating one: perhaps after all it’s not such a bad way to kick off your day, and make the most of it while you still can.

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