The Five Senses

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses… just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”

So says Oscar Wilde as quoted in the trailer forThe Five Senses, the introspective drama by Jeremy Podeswa. His film encompasses a fairly large canvas, several interconnected stories examining situations involving the five physiological senses. This probably sounds like a quirky gimmick, but he tells these yarns so delicately that Senses rises above its pedantic premise. Podeswa’s soft tone reminded me how The Red Violin told more about its various owners instead of merely accounting the violin’s lineage.

For the record, Senses represents touch by a masseuse (Gabrielle Rose) who is treating a woman (Molly Parker). The masseuse’s teenage daughter (Nadia Litz) babysits for her mother, but is distracted by a new acquaintance, a voyeur (Brendan Fletcher) symbolizing sight. Meanwhile a professional house cleaner (Daniel MacIvor) has an acute sense of smell, a cake maker (Penelope Ann Miller) has lost her sense of taste, and an older man (Phillippe Volter) is losing his hearing.

To move such a novel idea away from the trite and into a cohesive story, Podeswa uses a single thread to interconnect the several subplots. The little babysat girl evades her babysitter in the local part, much to the disgust of her mother, and soon everyone is caught up in her disappearance.

This personal crisis serves as a metaphorical barometer for the loss of senses, the splintered disconnectedness between them. The masseuse’s daughter is becoming more and more estranged from her overbearing mother. Her only friend is a genuinely confused peer. Together, he shows her the best spots to peep on unsuspecting lovers in the park (“It’s like looking at you inside out.”). Outcasts, the two share a mutual understanding of their dejectedness.

Meanwhile, her mother tries her best to console her patient’s grief over the loss of her child. The bond they share causes the masseuse to realize how she has taken for granted her own daughter. The irony there is that despite her keen ability to comfort strangers with her touch, she is unable to reach out to her own daughter.

Then, the ophthalmologist, trained in the preservation of vision, is losing another: his hearing. Seeing the end coming, Dr. Jacob Richard is cataloging a list of sounds to remember. He listens to an oncoming train by putting his head on the rail, and hears bygone oceans in his head while looking at a painting of the sea. He is enthralled by the sweet, yet muffled, sounds of neighboring opera emitting from the vents in his office.

The caterer has likewise lost her feel for her profession, baking designer cakes. Everything begins to taste the same. Her new love interest, a Frenchmen, revitalizes her flavor for the exotic.

Her gay friend, the domestic (male maid), has a list of former lovers that he reacquaints himself with in a coffee shop. Having forgotten the feeling of love, he smells each of them in attempts to revisit the sense. Where he eventually finds it is a stretch of the imagination however.

This wonderful ensemble cast make for an intriguing character study of intimacy-starved people. But as these disparate storylines intertwine, Podeswa seems intent on turning our expectations on our collective heads.

To be sure, it’s a beautifully crafted and deeply introspective film. But it’s also intent on bombarding our sensibilities by questioning what the majority of us would call “normalcy.” Don’t get me wrong; Podeswa isn’t parading a freak show. His characters do however take some unexpected turns that do more to shock us than effectively challenge our thinking. Though the fine performances and direction give us pause, the odd twists ultimately may be the film’s undoing.

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