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In Touch With Their Feelings

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2000


    'Loser' Mary-Louise Parker gets a taste of Daniel Maclvor's obsession in "Th Five Senses." (Fine Line)
Those damned Canadians are at it again! Another brilliant film--vivid, haunting, intelligent and in good taste, wonderfully acted, wonderfully written and directed. The sameness of it is quite dreary. Who do these smart alecks think they are, anyway . . . the Chinese?

Anyhow, that's the extremely good news about "The Five Senses," written and directed by Jeremy Podeswa. The film follows the intertwined gyres of several Toronto citizens over 72 hours, when each endures or is broken by an ordeal as they unknowingly pass through each other's space and lives. Each, further, is defined by a particular sense, overdeveloped at the expense of the others, which partially explains the characters' tendencies toward dysfunction.

And, of course, the whole thing is quiet, muted, classical, provocative, deeply interesting and dramatic. Whatta surprise! Really, this is getting boring.

It almost seems as if there's a Canadian house style, though in this case it would be a country style. It originated in the soft creepiness of the ginger ale nation's first great director, David Cronenberg, then was further refined by Atom Egoyan, the genius of Canadian filmmaking's next half-generation (Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" is probably Canada's single best movie). Now it has reached another half-generation of slightly younger men, like Don McKellar, who directed "Last Night," and Podeswa, in this film.

The style has very formal elements. The first is stately camera movement, a gliding of lens so slow that one hardly notices it. It's almost always lateral and bereft of zooms or pans. Second, the scenes are quite long by American standards, and within them there's very little cutting. The long take is the rule of the day, which, of course, demands the ultimate in acting professionalism, a challenge to which the country's extremely gifted core of performers is especially suited.

Then there's a level of photography that again could be called classical: extremely clear and deeply focused, but never showy or flashy of palette. There's no trying to put the camera where it's never been before--in the refrigerator or under the sink or tilted sideways. The camera is exactly where it belongs: on a dolly. The ultimate effect resembles the prose style of the old New Yorker: controlled, even, beautiful, unhurried and, most of all, utterly lacking in pretense or obvious effort.

Podeswa deploys these hallmarks to extremely good effect. The overarching event that unifies "The Five Senses" is the loss of a child. Typically, Podeswa stays far away from the melodrama of the situation and doesn't even bother to dramatize the outcome, choosing merely to report on it. Instead, he's interested in its effect--or lack of effect, in the case of several narcissists whose lives he chronicles.

The child is lost by the teenage Rachel (an extremely disaffected Nadia Litz). Her defining sensory weirdness is visual (sight). Unsure of her sexual identity, she's a sort of voyeur and, in the park, becomes obsessed with two necking kids; when they steal off for some woowoo, she follows. Alas, she's been charged with baby-sitting, and when she returns, the child is gone.

Rachel's mother, Ruth (Gabrielle Rose), a massage therapist (touch), is far more shattered than Rachel is, and seeks forgiveness from the missing child's mother, a wrenching scene made all the more disturbing by the camera's cool objectivity in recording the anguish, anger and guilt unleashed. In the middle of all this, a French doctor (Philippe Volter) pays careful attention--not. That's because he's going deaf (hearing) and has become obsessed with accumulating a library of sounds before the noise goes off forever.

Less attentive still are the pals Rona (the great Mary-Louise Parker) and Robert (the Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor). They represent, respectively, taste--she's a bad pastry chef who makes beautiful, inedible cakes--and smell--he's a gay man reconnecting with former lovers to see if he can uncover the odor of love.

Podeswa intercuts these stories brilliantly, but there's never a sense of forced melodrama or a wrong note in the dialogue. Each character manages to drift far up the tributaries of human strangeness and confusion, and the total impact is miraculous.

It has something of the fascination of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" or Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," but at one-third the length and with twice the impact.

Though each performer is quietly brilliant, it's the American, Parker, who really commands. She has the rare gift of seeming almost completely unactressy, and when she has to utter a curse word, the most banal part of speech, she manages to do so as if she's the first on Earth ever to commit such a sin.

The spontaneous intimacy she achieves with the other actors--her friend Robert, her dying, dyspeptic mother (Tara Rosling), her Italian lover (Marco Leonardi)--is truly remarkable.

THE FIVE SENSES (R, 105 minutes) – Contains sexual situations.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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