The Five Senses
First screened and reviewed in August 2000 / Most recently screeend in May 2020
Director: Jeremy Podeswa. Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Daniel MacIvor, Nadia Litz, Philippe Volter, Gabrielle Rose, Molly Parker, Brendan Fletcher, Marco Leonardi, Pascale Bussières, Clinton Walker, Richard Clarkin, Clare Coulter, Elize Frances Stolk, Sonia Laplante. Screenplay: Jeremy Podeswa.
I went in harder on this movie than I now think it deserves, but I'd still manage those expectations. B– seems about right. —May 2020

Twitter Capsule: Both script and emphatically "sensory" images can overstretch. Still, has its fingers on some interesting pulses.

VOR:   Look, I'm happy to see a film that goes for something distinctive and is capable of the odd surprise, even if I went in imagining richer, deeper gestures.

Photo © 1999 Alliance Atlantis Communications, © 2000 Fine Line Features
Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses is a great idea for a movie, but is not, unfortunately, a great movie. The premise of Canadian auteur Podeswa’s script is that several interlocking stories are connected by the motifs of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—each of them proving exquisitely refined in some of Podeswa’s characters, but just as often proving inadequate or distracting in the lives of others. Rona, the woman played by top-billed Mary-Louise Parker, is a baker who can’t enjoy the taste of her own cakes. Robert (Daniel MacIvor) is a bisexual house-cleaner who thinks he can “smell” true love. Ruth (The Sweet Hereafter’s Gabrielle Rose) is a massage therapist who brings some comfort to clients like Anna Miller (Sunshine’s Molly Parker), but while Anna is being so luxuriously touched, she is not watching or hearing things that she should.

You get the point, but one tender mercy of The Five Senses is that it never seems nearly as gimmicky as it could. Podeswa is not primarily interested in showing his own cleverness, or in wowing us with the multiple variations he can conjure around his film’s conceit. Instead, he offers a tonally diverse work that attempts to show how familiar genres and story arcs—the comic romance, the urban mystery, the adolescent sexual awakening, the despair of impending loss—all base themselves in the stories of people’s bodies. What do they feel? What do they look for? When do they only hear what they want? In gustatory or metaphorical terms, is it enough to taste something only once, if that taste is truly relished?

In other words, the film has its eye on real narrative questions, as well as real narratives. Whether those narratives actually succeed is another question, and one that often has to be answered in a highly qualified fashion. Two plotlines pan out rather well, and not coincidentally, I suspect, they rest on the film’s two most interesting performances. The always-interesting Parker, with her game but subtle eccentricities, makes Rona’s willful blindness in the face of lust a lightly-played comic treat, but she also calls up some deeper emotions when the film asks her to. Meanwhile, Nadia Litz, a teenager I didn’t recognize who appears as the masseuse’s daughter, rather hauntingly inhabits the role of a school-age outsider whose resentments and curiosities absorb her attention at exactly the wrong moment. While babysitting the daughter of Molly Parker’s character, she loses the toddler in the middle of a city park; her subsequent panic is made all the more interesting by the fact that she gets distracted anew amongst all the search-partying by another adolescent with some things to figure out.

Besides these two nervy, well-played stories, the others tend to accumulate to the film without adding much. Molly Parker, unlike her namesake Mary-Louise, grows less interesting rather than more so with each new film role. Her stab at the desperate mother here is, ironically, far less sympathetic and involving than the sometime-necrophile she indelibly created in Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed. MacIvor gets stuck with some mawkish circumstances and creaky narrative contrivances, while Philippe Volter’s sad-angry blind man (think Scent of a Woman, if you can bear to) and the ever-serious Pascale Bussières’ warm-hearted hooker pull even harder on threadbare convention. For a film that seems grounded in atmosphere and writing, it’s amazing how much effect ultimately rests on the actors—and how many of the performances and plotlines don’t stand up to the scrutiny.

But, if I may presume even further (don’t I always?), I think what ultimately mitigates the film’s power is that, from a technical standpoint, Podeswa has under-conceived how deeply he could animate this material. In a film that hinges so often on sensory excitation and deprivation, why not deny the audience some of those cues? Why not black out the screen, or quash the soundtrack, to engage our own self-conscious reliance on our own eyes and ears? Who knows, perhaps these gestures would have made the film seem crude, not in the least because film is really only prepared to deal with two of the five senses. It’s a relief, after so often experiencing the opposite, to find a film that errs on the side of under-selling its high concept . . . and yet, maybe that concept is itself too tenuous to generate a fully realized picture. The Five Senses, like much of what it describes, is keener at some moments than at others, and altogether more evanescent than you might imagine. Grade: C

Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars): Best Director

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