Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa assigned himself a daunting task when he stepped behind the camera to make "The Five Senses": Create a five-dimensional world of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, in the two dimensional medium of film.
The resulting picture is penetrating metaphorical cinema that immerses the viewer in its characters' often internalized loneliness, anxiety, desire, shame and insecurity by watching them misunderstand, embrace and/or rediscover senses we often take for granted through five well-conceived, inter-connected narratives, one for each sense.
Richard (Philippe Volter) is a middle-aged French optometrist who has learned he is slowly going deaf. He makes a list of every sound he wants committed to memory before it's too late and sets out to record them in his mind. He calls his estranged wife's house just to hear his daughter answer the phone, and he becomes mesmerized while eavesdropping on a neighbor through heating ducts in his office floorboards.
Cake designer Rona (Mary-Louise Parker) is so preoccupied with visual aesthetics that her handsome sweets lack any flavor. But a zesty, charming Italian chef (Marco Leonardi), with whom she had a fling while on vacation, follows her home to Montreal and begins seducing her with spectacular meals. Since he speaks no English, food and sex become their only modes of communication.
Robert (Daniel MacIvor), a professional house cleaner catering to affluent yuppies, relies on the nuances of scent to guide him through the life. An obsessive romantic, he wants to pinpoint what love smells like. To that end he meets with a string of ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriends, hoping the scent might still linger on them. Meanwhile, he becomes infatuated with a young married couple, one of whom designs perfumes.
Ruth (Gabrielle Rose) is a massage therapist with a paralyzing fear of intimacy. She has literally lost touch with the meaning of human contact. Her alienated, withdrawn teenage daughter (Nadia Litz) -- for whom "out of sight, out of mind" is much more than a maxim -- is a compulsive voyeur, a fact which leads to a fateful twist that ties all the stories together:
Reluctantly assigned to watch a client's daughter while her mother gives a massage, she becomes distracted by two lovers in a local park and when she turns her back, the little girl disappears.
Through drawing the audience into an extraordinarily observational frame of mind, Podeswa gives "The Five Senses" a dense atmosphere of emotional fragility in which every perceivable sensation echoes with meaning. He paints his scenes in beautiful, resonant autumn hues that reflect the somber mood. He plays with sight and sound -- the two senses available to him in film -- to vividly emulate each character's sensory perception.
But the construction of these themes around this missing girl is too conspicuous (and strangely underplayed) as a plot devise, unfortunately distracting from the inventive, fascinating stories of senses and feelings that are the crux of the film.
Podeswa intentionally puts the audience at ease early on by making it clear that no harm has come to the child, but it's hard to let go of the questions that arise about the off-screen search, which seems disconcertingly lacking in urgency.
Ultimately these powerfully acted, emotionally palpable parables of neglected souls and human nature overcome the picture's flaws, leaving a corporeal sensation in their wake. But a subtle, coincidental, six-degrees-of-separation style character weave might have served the same structural purpose without pulling the audience's hearts in another direction at the same time.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd December 1999
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Jeremy Podeswa
Starring: Mary-Louise Parker as Rona, Molly Parker as Anna Miller, Gabrielle Rose as Ruth Seraph, Elize Francis Stolk as Amy Lee Miller, Nadia Litz as Rachel Seraph, Daniel MacIvor as Robert, Philippe Volter as Dr. Richard Jacob, Clinton Walker as Carl, Astrid Van Wieren as Richard's Patient, Brendan Fletcher as Rupert, Paul Bettis as Richard's Doctor, James Allodi as Justin, Gavin Crawford as Airport Clerk, Sandi Stahlbrand as TV Reporter #1, Amanda Soha as Sylvie
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