Mixing hints of the apocalypse and romance seems like a guaranteed recipe for disaster. The romance and disaster genres have enough trouble working on their own, and combining them often seems like a big headache. Of course, as movies like to prove time and time again, there are exceptions to the rule, as is the case with David MacKenzie's Perfect Sense. Like a less expansive, more emotional version of Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, MacKenzie's tale of love amid a mysterious epidemic has its share of rough patches, but ultimately winds up a success that should have been given more of a chance (the film played for a few weeks in one theater in New York, and that's it as far as stateside showings go).
Set in Scotland, the film follows the relationship between Susan (Eva Green), an epidemiologist, and Michael (Ewan McGregor) a chef at a restaurant near Susan's apartment. As their on-and-off relationship is just starting to get off of the ground, though, a mysterious infection begins spreading, robbing people of their senses in moments punctuated by things like extreme, irrational hunger. It's not the easiest story to use to try and blend romance and disease-drama, yet MacKenzie's choices ultimately lead the film in the right direction.
Not to say that there aren't weak moments. The first two thirds feature awkward peaks and valleys in storytelling. As a result, a solid or good scene is often followed by one with strange execution. This is most often true in the scenes where we see people having episodes before losing a particular sense. On paper it makes sense to show people in ravenous hunger right before they lose their ability to taste, yet the execution is sometimes a tad daft. While seeing people chow down on the ingredients in Michael's kitchen is absolutely reasonable, scenes meant to illustrate the extent of the cravings inevitably reduces the film to showing Susan chomping down on a bouquet of flowers while the woman next to her bites into a tube of lipstick. Again, thematically speaking, nothing wrong, but moments like these undermine what MacKenzie is able to pull off in the good scenes.
The big problem that Perfect Sense has to overcome is that it wants to mix elements of the intimate and epic, using one location to communicate the epidemic at large. Strangely, the broader strokes in the film, which often involves the use of archival footage to show the disease impacting other parts of the globe, are more successful than the ones scripted directly for the film. Scribe Kim Aakeson is headed in the right direction with the basic elements she inserts into the story - such as Susan's relationship with her married sister - but the way in which they're dealt with can be inconsistent, and at times (even with MacKenzie's guidance) a little tone deaf. It's as if MacKenzie (or someone near the top of the production) was so taken with the basic outline of the story that he didn't bother to smooth out the first two acts.
It's a shame, because these inconsistencies in execution do a disservice to the film's performers. Green and McGregor are clearly invested in the material, as daffy as some of it must have seemed on the page, but you can feel a slight dip in energy in the weaker scenes. When everything is running smoothly, however, the pair deliver some lovely work, and when it comes time for the big moments in act three, they knock it out of the park. Green is particularly good, even when the script gives her slightly stiff dialogue to work with, and McGregor, despite being saddled with a character who doesn't go through as much of an arc as he should, has marvelous moments as well, including a painfully beautiful scene where he talks into a phone, unable to hear his own voice.
Yet for all of these ups and downs, everything in Perfect Sense comes together in the last act, with increasingly haunting results. As the stakes get higher, and more senses disappear, the impact of the disease feels more palpable and more meaningful. While the first two acts disrupt the momentum of the good scenes, act three allows them to finish just about free of interruption. Encounters are better handled, tone is consistent, and the awkward scenes fade away, leaving only a succession of stronger scenes that culminate in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful finale that will likely be one of 2012's best moments come year's end. For the most part the technical elements are adequate (kudos, though, on the limited use of trash to convey a sense of social dysfunction and chaos), but Max Richter's astoundingly beautiful score takes the film up to some pretty incredible highs, namely in the aforementioned finale. For everything that goes wrong in Perfect Sense, the ending is a reminder of the importance of ending a film with its best foot forward. And that's exactly what MacKenzie and company do, creating an ultimately satisfying and beautifully moving romantic drama tinged with hints of science fiction. The film as a whole may have its significant flaws, but its best moments work so well that every once and a while you're tempted to forgive them, which is more than a little impressive.