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Stop making senses: An epidemic love story

"Perfect Sense" (89 minutes) is now available via IFC On Demand and can be rented or downloaded via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, SundanceNOW, XBOX and PlayStation 3. The film will also begin a limited release in theaters on February 3rd.

The cause of the disease is unknown, and there is no cure. It could be a cluster of diseases, nobody knows for sure. The experts say it's not contagious, but that's just a futile ploy to prevent panic. It's spreading throughout the world as a full-blown epidemic. The symptoms are brutal and unrelenting: Slowly but surely, your senses fall away -- first you lose the sense of smell. Then taste, and eventually hearing...panic strikes you anyway, and the world around you ceases to make any kind of sense. How can you possibly survive the onslaught of sensory deprivation? What can you do when you're overwhelmed by an escalating sense of infantile helplessness?

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Welcome to the apocalypse of "Perfect Sense," an imperfect yet deeply affecting film from David McKenzie, a British director who's been quietly building a list of respectable credits (his latest is the rock 'n roll comedy "You Instead") since 1994. (He also regularly casts his actor brother Alastair, perhaps best known for his role in the popular BBC series "Monarch of the Glen.") "Perfect Sense" was well-received at Sundance last year, but it's not the kind of film that makes distributors see dollar signs in their eyes. It's an actor's showcase for Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, who meet the challenge head-on. Technically impressive and beautifully filmed (by Giles Nuttgens), quite frankly it's too distinctive -- choke on that, distributors! -- to be easily pigeon-holed and marketed to the masses.

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The broad strokes of cinematic Armageddon are familiar to anyone who's seen end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thrillers like "The Andromeda Strain," "The Omega Man," "Soylent Green" and more recently "28 Days Later," "I Am Legend," "Children of Men" and AMC's "The Walking Dead." Abandoned cars are strewn about on city streets choked with litter, toppled Honey Buckets and the residual grime of your worst nightmares come true. Life goes on, but mostly in hiding. As the disease gradually ravages the planet, the suddenly deaf are urged -- make that forced -- to stay indoors, put sheets over their windows to identify their fate, and keep watching the dismal news on TV.

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Susan (Green) is an epidemiologist, one of those experts who's not convincing anyone with official denials of contagion. Tucked away on a side street in downtown Glasgow, her apartment is situated across the street from a trendy and popular restaurant where Michael (McGregor) works as a talented chef. They meet cute -- or rather, they meet as charmingly as lovers can meet amidst chaos -- and after Michael gets past her initial reluctance, their bond is strong and their love undeniable.

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The symptoms are given the kind of blood-curdling acronyms (like AIDS) that spell doom for their victims: Severe Olfactory Syndrome (SOS) and Severe Hearing Loss Syndrome (SHLS) are among the most common. Every loss is preceded by an urgent binge of emotion or sensory indulgence, like the overwhelming sense of grief and loss that precedes the onset of SOS (imagine everyone you encounter crying uncontrollably), or the sudden burst of irrational hunger that drives people to eat anything within reach, even bars of soap, before their sense of taste abandons them altogether.

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"Smell and memory are connected," observes Susan in the melancholy voice-over that is judiciously used to keep us informed. (In my case, the salty, coastal smell of seawater instantly returns me to childhood boating on Puget Sound.) "Without smell," she continues, "an ocean of images disappears." For Michael to satisfy patrons who still dine out, food must be prepared "spicier, saltier, more sweet, more sour." We adapt to our circumstances, as awful as they may be.

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Making efficient use of a modest budget, McKenzie conveys all of this and more through minimal dialogue and maximal imagery, all enhanced by a score (by Max Richter) dominated by the lonely, plaintive strains of a single violin, as appropriate here as Itzhak Perlman's contribution to "Schindler's List." And if all this sounds too heavy to qualify as entertainment... well, that's an understandable concern. Then again, you didn't go to "Schindler's List" to be entertained, did you? (Or if you did, well... enjoy your sociopathy.)

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Spielberg's Holocaust drama had the advantage of historical weight behind it, but in "Perfect Sense" (a Danish/Irish/British coproduction), McKenzie applies similar gravitas to a speculative disaster that feels simultaneously poetically symbolic and eerily authentic. It's a scenario (by prolific Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson) that requires director and actor to trust each other implicitly, and together they embark on a risk-taking voyage. These are daring performances, not simply two fine actors baring themselves emotionally and physically (which they do, several times), but going out on a limb to sell viewers on the intensity of their characters' experience. And while McGregor is reliably superb in his top-billed role, it's Green (soon to be seen in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows," and doing some of her best work here) who gives the film its pulsing heart and soul.

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The film's prospects were iffy after Sundance (where it ultimately shared the same distribution-limbo fate as my previously reviewed Demanders feature, "The Off Hours"), and it will no doubt provoke a divided response. "Perfect Sense" is grim, to be sure, without offering any of the conventional thrills of standard-issue disaster movies. But it's also a love story as deep as any other, featuring discreetly erotic love scenes that gain substance in the midst of abject misery.

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As McKenzie confidently draws you into his film's melancholy mindset, Aakenson's script and the chemistry between Green and McGregor serve as constant reminders that this is a film about survival, not death. There's also just enough humor to leaven the heaviness, and the restaurant scenes deliver a lively comic-relief reunion between McGregor and his "Trainspotting" costar, the inimitable Ewen Bremner. The lovely Connie Nielsen also appears, too briefly, as Susan's affectionate older sister, a stark contrast to her portrayal of Kelsey Grammer's long-suffering wife on the underrated Starz TV series "Boss."

"Perfect Sense" may be far from perfect, but it's jarringly effective and it ultimately packs a solid emotional punch. And if the title's message is a bit too explicit -- that love is the only "perfect sense" we possess -- well, in this case there's something to be said for thematic simplicity. As Lennon & McCartney wrote, "there's no one you can save who can't be saved," and this film powerfully embraces the wisdom of those words.

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A Seattle-based freelancer, Jeff Shannon has been writing about film and filmmakers since 1985, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1985-92) and The Seattle Times (1992-present). He was the assistant editor of Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-ROM and website (1992-98), where he worked with rogerebert.com editor Jim Emerson, and was an original member of the DVD & Video editorial staff at Amazon.com (1998-2001). Disabled by a spinal cord injury since 1979 (C-5/6 quadriplegia), he occasionally contributes disability-related articles to New Mobility magazine, and is presently serving his second term on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.

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