Friday, June 29, 2012

Now on DVD: another end of the world

Posted By on 06.29.12 at 04:45 PM

Lovers Ewan McGregor and Eva Green wear protection in Perfect Sense.
  • Lovers Ewan McGregor and Eva Green wear protection in Perfect Sense.
In this week’s long review, J.R. Jones points out the thematic similarities between the new Steve Carrell comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but it’s worth noting that the apocalypse has taken place in a number of recent movies. Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (which played at the Film Center last month), Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (which has yet to receive a Chicago screening), and studio crap like the Transformers series offer fantasies about the end of our planet’s—or at least humanity’s—existence. This wave of movies strikes me as a cultural response to the threats posed by climate change, the exhaustion of nonrenewable energy sources, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It seems a distressing trend that many people find it easier to imagine the world ending than it getting any better. (One of the more provocative things about Adam Curtis’s 2011 essay series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace—which I wrote about in January—is that it presented this defeatist attitude as a social construction rather than a rational conclusion.)

David Mackenzie’s Glasgow-set sci-fi romance Perfect Sense, which recently came out here on DVD, is no less defeatist than any of these other movies: it presents the end of humanity as a foregone conclusion and proceeds like a countdown to the inevitable demise. The premise has humankind afflicted by a global epidemic that robs people of their senses in order of scent, taste, hearing, sight, and touch (Mackenzie comes up with some inventive aesthetic strategies to illustrate the loss of each one). Predictably, this crisis brings civilization to a halt, yet the story focuses on characters who try keep it going in spite of everything. Susan (Eva Green, doing a passable Scottish accent) is an epidemiologist; Michael (Ewan McGregor) is a high-profile chef who refuses to leave his post because he expresses his deepest feelings through cooking.

Mackenzie (Young Adam, Asylum) is one of the few directors who could make this awkward setup feel genuinely tragic. One of the most sensual filmmakers working today, he understands how immediate perceptions create a direct link between one’s sense of self and the world one inhabits. Mackenzie’s probing, impressionistic style employs bursts of music, sinuous tracking shots, and some of the most realistic sex scenes in movies (I refer not to their explicitness but to their precise observation of details that most movies overlook: uncertain touching, nervous laughter). His films feel so drunk on living that not even the presence of Ashton Kutcher, who starred in his barely released Spread, can impede their effect.

As the characters of Perfect Sense find themselves deprived of favorite pleasures, so does Mackenzie. This was his first feature to be shot on digital video rather than on film since his 2002 debut The Last Great Wilderness, and it’s jumpy and shallow looking where his work is normally fluid and rich (though Mackenzie and his regular cinematographer Giles Nuttgens still manage a vibrant color palette). The movie, like much of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work, posits video as a postcinematic medium; and this dourness makes the apocalyptic scenario feel more morbid and the images of pleasure feel more poignantly futile. Much of Perfect Sense concerns Michael and Susan’s intense romance, which they pursue less out of love than to confirm their ability to experience deep feelings. Mackenzie elicits some impressive work from McGregor and Green: even when the script approaches the risible, the actors’ exhumations of pain, depression, and lust seem the product of actual soul-searching.

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