Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa’s ensemble piece, The Five Senses, presents a tough call for reviewers. In many ways, it’s a remarkable achievement—wonderfully acted, artfully photographed, and seamlessly edited. But Podeswa makes several egregious miscalculations that nearly render his film unendorsable. Having seen The Five Senses twice (it premiered at this year’s Filmfest DC), I’m confident that moviegoers in search of unusual fare—the Croupier crowd—will find it worthwhile, but only if they generously overlook its blunders.
The film opens quietly with enigmatic glimpses of its characters pursuing their occupations, interspersed with autumnal shots of Toronto and accompanied by the music of a small string ensemble. As more pieces of this mosaic slip into place, an intricate narrative gradually emerges. In Podeswa’s focal storyline, Ruth (Gabrielle Rose), a widowed massage therapist, charges her alienated, dropout teenage daughter, Rachel (Nadia Litz), with taking a client’s restless 3-year-old to a neighborhood park. Voyeuristically preoccupied by a couple having furtive sex in the bushes, Rachel lets the little girl wander off and must report the disappearance to Anna (Molly Parker), the child’s distraught mother.
During the long weekend in which Toronto police engage in a media-driven search for the girl, Podeswa introduces an assortment of other characters, most of whom work and/or live in the building that houses Ruth’s massage studio. Blunt-spoken Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), who bakes and decorates beautiful but unpalatable special-occasion cakes, apprehensively awaits an uninvited visit from hunky Roberto (Marco Leonardi), with whom she had a fling during a vacation in Italy. Because of the language barrier, Rona can’t communicate with him well enough to determine whether he really loves her or is merely exploiting her to obtain Canadian citizenship. Lovelorn bisexual housekeeper Robert (Daniel MacIvor), Rona’s best friend, initiates a series of reunions with his former male and female partners. Convinced that he can “smell” love, he’s revisiting his past to sniff out whether anyone has ever truly cared for him.
Subplots abound. Richard (Philippe Volter), a morose music-loving ophthalmologist estranged from his wife and child, struggles to deal with impending deafness. Rachel, consumed by guilt about her role in her father’s death as well as the child’s disappearance, befriends Rupert (Brendan Fletcher), a fellow voyeuristic adolescent outcast. Rona pays several visits to her smart, stoic mother, who is dying of cancer. Robert is cruised by a sexy young couple whose trendy home he cleans. And the film’s unseen soprano, whose beautiful voice issues from a rehearsal studio to fill the corridors of Ruth, Richard, and Rona’s building, materializes near the fadeout.
Podeswa links these characters by associating many of them with one or more of the titular five senses. Most of the connections are obvious: taste (Rona), smell (Robert), sight and sound (Richard), touch (Ruth). Too obvious, in fact, and too obtrusively schematic. This unnecessary, rather frivolous structural gimmick draws attention away from the detailed, tightly knit mininarratives as well as the filmmaker’s concern with the ways that fear, shame, language, media, architecture, and other factors isolate people. Instead of enhancing his movie, Podeswa’s conceit betrays obsessive-compulsive impulses; this impression is reinforced by the observation that all of his main characters’ names begin with the same letter.
The mood of urban anomie that pervades The Five Senses recalls the films of Podeswa’s countryman and mentor, Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing, The Sweet Hereafter). But, to judge from the sympathetic performances he elicits from his performers, Podeswa has a much warmer sensibility. The movie deserves to be seen for its cast alone, the most impressive I’ve witnessed since Magnolia. Several of the players are reminiscent, in both looks and talent, of estimable American counterparts. With her dark ringlets, large, anxious eyes, and subdued intensity, Rose calls to mind Susan Sarandon. Similarly, Litz’s round face and precocious perversity summon up Christina Ricci’s, and MacIvor’s sharp features and jokey, lightly effeminate manner suggest a less smirky Kevin Spacey.
Podeswa is a masterful visual stylist. His compositions are handsomely framed and balanced, subtly manipulating interior spaces, textures, and decors to complement his characters’ inner states. He and cinematographer Gregory Middleton largely employ natural light, achieving skin tones more painterly than photographic. Podeswa moves his camera sparingly, but when he does, the result is purposeful and poetic. As a screenwriter, however, Podeswa is guilty of some embarrassing lapses. Many of the plot resolutions are surprising and satisfying, but his decision to redeem Richard’s suffering with a sign-language-literate hooker ex machina is laughably sentimental. Such a shameless contrivance undermines the filmmaker’s credibility, fueling the casually dismissive reviews that The Five Senses has received in the American press.
If you can forgive Podeswa’s occasional bungles, you’ll be rewarded with some hard-to-forget sequences: Rachel’s transforming the tremulous Rupert into the gender-bending embodiment of his sexual fantasies; Ruth’s massaging an uptight young man hungering for human contact; Rona and Robert’s discussion of her relationship with Roberto, a dream-come-true combination of chef and lover. (“He’s like Julia Child with a blender up her ass,” she reports. “Of course I look good. All I do is eat and fuck.”) Despite Podeswa’s intrusive structural strategies, he clearly empathizes with the characters who summon up the strength to connect with others and holds compassion for those unwilling or unable to break out of their cocoons. Moviegoers who bring a bit of their own compassion to The Five Senses may well surprise themselves by wanting to see it a second time. CP