Revisiting PERFECT SENSE, 2011’s Other Prophetic Pandemic Film

Stay safe and watch a nice, relaxing film.

What a few months it’s been for CONTAGION. Nine years after Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic film initially hit cinemas, it’s easily the most significant movie of 2020 so far, and likely one of the most-watched as well (take that, TROLLS WORLD TOUR and BAD BOYS FOR LIFE). Indeed, from the moment it became apparent that COVID-19 wasn’t going away quickly, the world has been obsessed with the star-studded thriller. Thanks to its uncanny similarities with the real-life predicament we’re all now experience, watching Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and company try to survive a new, highly infectious disease has felt like peering into a crystal ball. CONTAGION even mentions social distancing, 2020’s certain term of the year. But it’s not the only prophetic pandemic movie from 2011.

The same year, PERFECT SENSE also reached screens. Premiering at Sundance in January — with CONTAGION debuting at Venice in September — it even got in first. And while it wasn’t as popular, acclaimed or widely seen, it’s also unnervingly relevant to the health situation the globe is currently endeavouring to navigate. The premise: when a strange illness starts sweeping the planet, the afflicted begin to lose their sensory perceptions one by one. Smell is the first sense to go. Taste is the next. As anyone who has spent too much time reading about COVID-19 over the past few months  (i.e. everyone) already knows, the temporary loss of both smell and taste are among the current novel coronavirus outbreak’s early symptoms, too.

Directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, and marking the HELL OR HIGH WATER and STARRED UP helmer’s second collaboration with Ewan McGregor after YOUNG ADAM, PERFECT SENSE starts as many a contagion-centric film does: with a sudden surprise spread of an unknown sickness. Doctors and experts are puzzled, including epidemiologist Susan (Eva Green), with confusion only growing when case numbers start increasing around Europe with no known connection. Also baffling is the onset of the disease, which causes the infected to start weeping uncontrollably before their ability to smell disappears. That pattern — unleashing frenzied and vivid bursts of extreme emotion, then stripping away a sense — continues en masse each time the condition progresses to a new stage.

It’s an intriguing setup, and a thought-provoking pattern for a worldwide plague. But Mackenzie makes it clear from the outset — via the use of lyrical narration layered atop sunny, poetic imagery, resembling the kind of pandemic movie Terrence Malick might make — that this isn’t a procedural-style contagion film that explores this interesting concept. Susan may be a scientist; however that really just gives PERFECT SENSE a convenient way to explain the few details about the disease that it chooses. Instead of charting its spread and impact, or the fight against it, the film explores the personal plight of Susan and a chef, Michael (McGregor). He works in the high-end restaurant that backs onto the laneway beneath her Glasgow apartment. They cross paths, naturally. Then, they endeavour to establish a new romance just as everything they’ve ever known about the world, themselves and being human drastically changes.

The list of pandemic movies is lengthy (hello OUTBREAK, 12 MONKEYS, 28 DAYS LATER, I AM LEGEND and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, just to name a few), but the roster of romantic pandemic dramas is short indeed (rom-pan-drams definitely isn’t a catchy term). Global outbreaks are hardly sexy, of course, yet just how people cope with the everyday aspects of life when a contagion sets in for the long haul — including how they go about their love lives — is a scenario worth exploring. And, at the moment, it couldn’t feel more appropriate. Zoom dates didn’t exist in 2011 because Zoom’s software didn’t exist, so PERFECT SENSE hones in on a good ol’-fashioned meet-cute. Then, it watches its central couple work through the normal stages of dating, but during a pandemic. Everything is heightened, as is to be expected when an outbreak has taken over the globe — and that takes a toll on two people trying to get to know each other while falling victim to a disease that’ll soon mean they can’t smell, taste, hear or see each other.

Often while getting lusty and naked, Green and McGregor convey that emotional and sensory rollercoaster ride with depth, intensity and raw feeling. She’s initially reluctant but alluring, he’s cavalier and as charming as he usually is on-screen (especially with his natural Scottish accent), and their characters’ chemistry grows organically as they weather the ups and downs of existence during a pandemic. PERFECT SENSE also reteams McGregor with TRAINSPOTTING’s Ewen Bremner — as a fellow chef, but sadly without a spud in sight — to help paint a picture of Michael’s broader life, and to examine the ways that their restaurant adapts when taste is no longer connected to eating. That said, even alongside intermittent news-footage clips that provide a glimpse at society’s state in general, including its inevitable decay as sensory deprivation rips away humanity’s ability to engage with the world around them, the film always deploys its primary pair, their romantic bond and their general struggles as a microcosm of the universal experience.

One duo’s “love in the time of impending doom”-type situation isn't everyone’s, and all that. For this couple specifically, an apocalyptic onset of widespread, life-altering illness is also a catalyst — because, pre-pandemic, neither was particularly open to a lasting connection. That might sound like the kind of clichéd detail screenwriters cook up to tug at heartstrings, but it’s an apt inclusion here. It’s never treated simplistically, either, with Susan and Michael’s relationship and the pandemic intertwined to a complex degree. There’s poignancy to seeing them adapt to the new status quo, including their craving for comfort from each other, and for a lasting link with another person in general. It fits nicely alongside scenes in Michael’s restaurant, where diners sit down to servings of unlikely substances chosen for texture and feel, rather than taste. When times are a-changing, people start a-changing with them — and just because the urge to adjust, realise what’s truly important and value what you can while you can in an increasingly volatile world is obvious, that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

The script, by IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE’s Kim Fupz Aakeson, does occasionally flirt with neatness; Susan and Michael’s initial run-ins could also slide seamlessly into a by-the-numbers rom-com. Overall, however, PERFECT SENSE revels in the exact opposite: ambiguity. The decision to focus on the film’s key couple, and not the who, what, how and why of the outbreak, leaves ample questions unanswered. They’re unanswered for Susan and Michael, too, and for everyone in this futuristic vision. But none of those specifics will really make a difference to the afflicted, or to their daily lives, which PERFECT SENSE understands. So, it shows people adapting and evolving. Susan and Michael find each other. Fits of ravenous hunger, including eating flowers, break out before taste disappears, then everyone figures out how to cope. Vicious words are slung just before hearing gives out, but again the world goes on. And, in the process, all those last scents, flavours, conversations and sights mean all that much more. Yes, that’s a reflection that applies to mortality in general, and that parallel isn’t hidden — but in this bittersweet, science fiction-tinged amalgam of romance and disaster, it always rings true. Add that to PERFECT SENSE’s spot-on pandemic prophecies.