You Have Been Watching…Perfect Sense
Updated: May 11, 2022
What I have discovered when talking to people about Scottish film directors is that few seem to split opinion as David Mackenzie does. Usually I can see other points of view even if I don’t agree with them, but when I look at just a selection of Mackenzie’s body of work; The Last Great Wilderness, Young Adam, Hallam Foe and now Perfect Sense, it seems unarguable that this is one of the most visually interesting, and risky, directors around. There are flaws in his films, often because he takes those risks, but surely these are out weighed by the importance of the ideas and issues that he is asking his audiences to deal with.
Perhaps Perfect Sense, his latest film, shows this better than any of his previous work. There are scenes which are excessive and which, if viewed in isolation, will seem ludicrous, but Mackenzie is proposing an excessive scenario. Global panic begins as everyone feels uncontrollable and inexplicable grief before they start to lose their senses one by one, with the loss of smell being just the beginning.
The central story in Perfect Sense is the love affair that unfolds between Ewan McGregor’s Michael and Eva Green’s Susan as chaos erupts all around. There is a sense (excuse me) that the need for love becomes heightened as the senses begin to fail, that strong bonds need to be formed before it is too late. The love affair could be viewed as unromantic for those reasons, that there is a need rather than a deep desire. As the world returns to nature, or loses its nature, the most primal needs come to the fore. Just as humanity is finding a way to survive these sensual losses, so Michael and Eva discover that each set back only makes them stronger. Through their relationship we are each being asked to consider how we would react in such circumstances, something which the best science fiction always demands.
The two leads are excellent. It is made clear from the beginning that Michael and Susan are not easy people to like. He unceremoniously kicks a conquest out of bed claiming that he ‘can’t sleep if someone else is in the bed’, while she has just had her heart broken and believes she will never find anyone again, setting her stall against all men. Her initial reluctance to engage with this cocky womaniser is completely understandable, but what is of interest is that they break down any initial pretence to who they are to lay themselves bare to each other, eventually labelling themselves ‘Mr and Mrs Arsehole’. The scenes where they break down or lose control are often wild, but this is not a film that demands realism, this is emotion that comes from somewhere other than the heart, more likely in the form of something altering the brain, and as such no one can know how this would unfold. Here’s the trailer:
The support cast is well chosen if lightly used. Connie Nielsen is a strong, reliable presence as Susan’s sister, Denis Lawson (who I consider the best actor in his family) is Michael’s boss struggling to keep his restaurant open as people’s requirements change. There is the ‘other’ Ewan, Mr Bremner, who is on top form in a fairly undemanding role, and there is something appealing seeing Renton and Spud together on screen again, and also Mackenzie’s actor brother Alistair who plays one of Susan’s fellow scientists and, at the risk of repeating myself, he is an underrated screen presence who should be better known. Here is a film of the cast and director discussing Perfect Sense:
I can agree that David Mackenzie is an inconsistent film maker, but this is often down to the quality of the material he is asked to deal with. Remember that this is someone who wants to make films. You cannot imagine that he would wait 9 years between releases as Lynne Ramsay did between Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin (see you-have-been-watchingwe-need-to-talk).
That is not to have a pop at Ramsay, or other film makers such as Terence Malick or Peter Mullan who, admirably, only want to make films which mean something intensely personal to them. Mackenzie is often an auteur for hire, similar to Steven Soderbergh, and will make the best, and he does, of fairly underwhelming scripts, but even when he is dealing with the more frothy end of things, as in the T in the Park set You Instead (see you-have-been-watching…you instead) he is always interesting, with a eye for the unusual and a visual flair which is rare. When he gets to experiment, as he does in Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Perfect Sense, then there are few other directors who make movies which are as entertaining even as they confront the audience with uncomfortable propositions. He is someone who does not shy away from confronting the big ideas and we need film makers who will engage with difficult and thought provoking material.