The afflicted party starts to grieve without warning, compelled by unseen forces to pause mid-stride and remember an entire life's worth of regret, lost love and missed opportunity. Then, once the tears are gone, the ability to smell exits with them.
This is the irreversible ailment that soon envelops the entire world in Perfect Sense — and after smell has been purged from existence, the other sensations soon follow. The loss of each one is predicated by a strong, often violent seizure of emotion, from sorrow to hunger to anger, like a bell-peal of chemicals ringing through the brain.
The movie, a hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is a sensual take on the end of sensations. Pathologists clambering for explanation need not apply; director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson aren't interested in the origins of this pandemic — no freak mutation, no oil spill, no Patient Zero. They instead handily employ Old Testament-style cosmic irony: Since we have failed to properly appreciate our world, we no longer deserve to do so.
We view this swift hand of justice through the privileged, narcissistic eyes of Michael the chef (Ewan McGregor) and Susan the epidemiologist (Eva Green), whose careers contribute more to the story than their personalities. These romantic leads, who freely admit to being "a couple of assholes" — she the icy loner with pursed lips, he the womanizer with the shoulder tattoo — are primarily in love with themselves, so the end of the world becomes all about them. When the two find each other, it's in a passion created less by an emotional kinship than by the encroaching despair neither would have any hope of facing alone.
Perfect Sense shines best outside of the bedroom, in sequences that show the human race adjusting to tragedy after tragedy. People learn sign language, dump more spice in their food. But sense is tied to memory in a deep and knotty way — and losing one, as the narrator intones over images of sunsets and tears, means losing access to the other.
Yet the message becomes muddled in goofy sequences of the uncontrollable human exuberance heralding each new loss. In the feeding frenzy that signals the purging of taste, the film treats us to a gluttonous collage of characters gnawing on flowers and ripping teeth into live fish, and a singular truth becomes apparent: It's difficult to impart feelings of profound sadness with an image of Ewan McGregor shoving a stick of butter in his mouth.
Food, and specifically the expensive food Michael's establishment makes, plays a rather large role in the film's proceedings, as gourmet gatekeepers rage against the dying of the light. Framing a global tragedy around life's finer things ("But what will happen to all the restaurants?") leaves a bad taste, but it also creates at least one inventive bit: a food critic who raves about color, temperature and texture instead of flavor. Apparently it is still possible to critique when one lacks sense.
Though Perfect Sense continually, wrongly insists that Susan and Michael's defeatist romance is the real story, the film does one thing very well. It creates, with every transmitter that shuts down, a heightened awareness of what it means to exist as a human — to smell, taste, hear, see and touch the planet's wonders with a wide-open mind.