In times of social and economic crisis, we tend to turn to speculative fiction. There’s an explosion in the sales of sci-fi and fantasy; we’re desperate to escape from our realities. And if the world we’re escaping to is worse than the world we’re living in, so much the better. Nothing peps up your day like a bit of schadenfreude.
The post-war years, with their political upheaval and their looming spectre of nuclear war, saw an explosion of what Brian Aldiss dubbed the ‘cosy catastrophe,’ where, in books like The Death Of Grass and The Day Of The Triffids writers like John Christopher and John Wyndham ensured that the world ended not with a bang but with a whimper. With the global economy in the toilet and various unwinnable wars being fought on multiple fronts, Perfect Sense is the first of a wave of apocalypse-themed dramas (Argentina’s Phase 7, Xavier Gens’ queasily brilliant The Divide, Brad Pitt’s upcoming World War Z) to wash up on British shores. In Perfect Sense, David Mackenzie uses the tentative romance between brittle, commitment-phobe Eva Green and cockish commitment-phobe Ewan McGregor and the Glasgow-based onset of a global pandemic to ask some big, sophomoric questions about life, love and what it means to be human.
Cool, driven Susan (Eva Green) is an epidemiologist at a Glasgow hospital who has little time for cocky but charming playboy chef Michael (Ewan McGregor) who works at the trendy restaurant across the alley from her flat. She’s nursing a broken heart and has no time for romance as a mystery illness sweeping the world has just hit Glasgow. The first symptom is an overwhelming feeling of grief followed by the loss of your sense of smell. Though why you’d automatically assume people randomly bursting into tears in Glasgow is part of a disease and not football-related is anyone’s guess? So, after a hard day at the office, Susan allows herself to be seduced by Michael’s cooking and the two spend an emotional night together and wake up the next day minus their sense of smell.
While the authorities try to maintain calm and Susan and her team investigate the illness, the world just gets on with it, adapting to the loss of smell, Michael adding more and more spice and colour to his dishes, shoehorned in street performer Anamaria Marinca coming up with a show based on texture and memory. Then comes an overwhelming sense of terror followed by an insatiable, bestial hunger turning people into gluttons who’d eat anything from lipsticks to (in the case of Mackenzie’s brother, former Monarch Of The Glen, Alastair) live lab animals. Next comes an uncontrollable violent rage and deafness. As they lose their senses and the world slowly spirals towards anarchy, Susan and Michael cling to each other.
When Glasgow was awarded the title European City of Culture back in 1990, many Glaswegians at the time joked that the rest of Western Europe must’ve been wiped out in some sort of nuclear holocaust and that no-one got around to telling us. It’s both refreshing and ironic then that Glasgow seems to have become the location du jour for the End of the World (Brad Pitt just finished shooting zombie apocalypse World War Z there). It’s also refreshing that Mackenzie’s film takes a quieter, more thoughtful approach to the end reminiscent of films like Don McKellar’s Last Night or the classic On The Beach rather than the can-do, against all odds, heroics of the likes of Armageddon. It’s just unfortunate that the script is so thumpingly obvious and, in common with most of Mackenie’s films (Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Spread), that it revolves around such dislikable protagonists.
One of the key requisites of any love story is that you should empathise with the lovers, you should like them, you should want their love to triumph. In short, you should give a damn if they get together. While an attractive pairing, Green and McGregor’s characters are thoroughly dislikable. They’ve been cast to type, playing versions of themselves they’ve played half a dozen times. She’s cold, aloof and frequently naked. As she is in most things. He’s a bit of a knob and frequently naked. As he is in most things. Despite their shared baths, frequent nudity and shaving foam guzzling (don’t ask) there’s no real chemistry between them, they don’t convince as a couple. You just don’t care if they make it. And with humanity in the grip of a global pandemic you can’t help but feel that Eva Green’s epidemiologist should maybe be, I don’t know, TRYING TO FIND A CURE rather than boffing Ewan McGregor every chance she gets.
Pretentious and underwhelming, Mackenzie’s film is rather ponderous. The scenes of society breaking down, while effective, just look a little Glasgow after a midweek Old Firm game and Mackenzie’s tendency to cut to events in Africa, India and Japan feels unnecessary, serving not to underline the global significance of the pandemic but to stop the film dead for a few minutes while we watch some Third World villagers adapt better than the Developed World. Deep man. It’s like, they’ve got nothing but they’re so much wiser than us. Yeah, right. The film strives for poignancy and emotional resonance but bogs itself down in the kind of existential questions only teenage poets and Danes find interesting (it was written by a Dane) and could serve as a companion piece to von Trier’s Melancholia. While it’s more hopeful and upbeat than von Trier’s gloomfest, and rallies itself for a life-affirming climax, Perfect Sense is far from perfect. Yup, I made that pun and I’m standing by it.
Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, Denis Lawson, Stephen Dillane, Alastair Mackenzie, Ewen Bremner, Connie Nielsen, Anamaria Marinca
Kim Fupz Aakeson