The Five Senses
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 14 July 2000

Inside Out

The too-literal scheme of The Five Senses is more than a little daunting. Just as the title hints, each of its major characters is dealing with a crisis that reduces in some way to one of the five senses. So, a widowed massage therapist has lost her sense of human "touch," a young baker has lost her sense of taste, a French eye doctor is going deaf, etc. (it doesn't help that all of the characters' names begin with the letter "R"). And yet, there are also moments when the sheer strangeness of the situations threatens to bust out of the film's near-airless structure. At such moments, The Five Senses turns into something both more and less than the sum of its very precise parts.

Patently influenced by his fellow Toronto native Atom Egoyan, director/co-producer/co-writer Jeremy Podeswa favors slow camera pans and elegant compositions, warm-unto-spooky lighting and dialogue that's abstract and self-distancing, but also uncomfortably revealing. This comparison doesn't extend to thematic complexities, however: if Egoyan's many films over the years have intensively explored particular issues (voyeurism, sexuality, loyalty, distrust, family relations), Podeswa's feature is just beginning to map a bit of terrain. The plot involves a series of domestic dramas linked only by the coincidence of characters working in the same office building. With this setting, The Five Senses sets out to consider something akin to urban alienation, especially as this is fanned by media sensationalism and the common luridness of tall anonymous buildings and alleyways.

And yet, the movie isn't about panic or violence, per se. Rather, it's about the ways that the senses are deluded and depressed by daily emotional beat-downs, the kinds of events that are so routine, they hardly register, except by their long-term effects. And of course, such effects have everything to do with the ways that characters know and also deceive themselves, as well as their self-presentations. What is the relationship between perception and reality? Choice and fantasy? Love and desire? Trust and generosity? All these questions come up, of course, but they're obscured from the outset, more academic than immediate. The single thread that affects each character – as observers or participants – is the disappearance of a little girl in a park across the street from the office building, which means that reporters set up camp and try to interview most everyone who comes in or out and that the location itself, so humdrum to everyone who works there, turns slightly exotic as it appears on their TVs. As they find themselves renegotiating their feelings about their daily lives, they also must recognize their responsibility in shaping those lives. All this makes for a chain of life-changing revelations.

Each of these revelations is occasioned by an ostensible choice. For instance, the reticent, terminally self-conscious cake baker Rona (Mary-Louise Parker) has to decide what to do when her beautiful and sensuous Italian lover Roberto (Marco Leonardi) -- whom she met while on vacation in Europe -- comes for a visit and presses for a commitment. The fact that they share virtually no language is the least of their problems: the more he acts out his excitement and willingness to love her, the more Rona backs away. And the more advice he offers on her gorgeous but flavorless cakes, the more she resents him. She's unable to accept him as he is, or to be kind to herself. Her mother tells her bluntly during a phone call, "Nothing's perfect. The sooner you accept that, the happier you'll be."

Afraid to make such a leap of faith, Rona turns to distracting conversations with her best friend Robert (Daniel MacIvor), a bisexual housecleaner whose sense of smell is so finely attuned -- or so he thinks -- that he believes he can smell love. While Rona tries to avoid intimacy, Robert seeks it avidly, to the point of making a list of past lovers whom he invites, one by one, to a local café for a drink and a sniff, hoping to determine whether he or she is the real thing. By juxtaposing their seemingly different approaches to romance, the film makes clear that both Rona and Robert seek a similar self-affirmation, which neither can reach on his or her own. Both are suspicious of the surfaces they can understand only through their "senses," yet both are equally unsure of deeper possibilities, in themselves, their relationships, and their pasts.

The film offers this kind of observation repeatedly, in each character's anxious quest for truth and love. Just so, the French eye doctor and opera buff Richard (Philippe Volter), knowing that he is going deaf, goes about collecting sounds that hold significant memories for him, while also fearing what his imminent loss actually means to him, becoming dependent on other people. Looking for a way to express his independence, Richard spends an evening with a prostitute (Pascale Bussieres), who, as prostitutes tend to do in such contrived movie situations, gives him wise advice on loss and change.

In the midst of all this order, the most unruly and intriguing character is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a teenager. Rachel (the stunningly brave Nadia Litz) is the angry daughter of the massage therapist, Ruth (Gabrielle Rose). The good-hearted Ruth is having trouble recovering from her husband's recent death (i.e., she's "out of touch"), and in turn, has drifted away from Rachel, who is feeling confused and spending her days alone. Rachel's ascribed "sense" is sight: she's age-appropriately concerned with her own appearance (she wears heavy-rimmed glasses, her body is changing) and also trying to figure out what it means to be sexual, to have sexual desire or sexual identity. Her crisis comes when she's supposed to be looking after a young daughter of one of her mom's clients (this would be the aforementioned central "thread"). The child wanders off in the park while Rachel is distracted by a couple making out on a bench, which leads to a media onslaught, and a serious discussion about loss between Ruth and the girl's mother, Anna (Kissed's Molly Parker, again simultaneously radiant and steely), while Rachel is essentially left to deal with her guilt and panic on her own.

Wandering through the park again, half searching for her missing charge and half searching for a way out of her unhappy life, Rachel meets sixteen-year-old Rupert (Brendan Fletcher), a fellow misfit and novice voyeur. While the film's other relationship vignettes take you pretty much where you might expect to go, this one remains slightly off-balance and unresolved. As they discuss their mutual feelings and interests, Rachel and Rupert also delve into gender limitations and sexual expectations, coming to an understanding of each other and themselves that is refreshingly generous and nonjudgmental: when Rachel dresses Rupert in girl's clothes and makeup, he's more than willing to embrace the chance to feel -- even be -- something new. He reassures Rachel, "Not fitting in forces you to be original," which might stand as the film's guiding sentiment: where the characters try hard to fit in, to be unseen, untouched, and untasted, they are missing potential experiences and connections. As Rachel watches and participates in Rupert's transformation, she is able finally to see herself in relation to someone as "other" as she feels and also desires to be. As she puts it, she feels like she's looking at Rupert "inside out." The rest of the film could use a similar shake-up.

Click here to read Paula Nechak's interview with Jeremy Podeswa.

Written and 
Directed by:

Jeremy Podeswa

Gabrielle Rose
Mary-Louise Parker
Nadia Litz
Daniel MacIvor
Philippe Volter
Molly Parker
Marco Leonardi




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