Sensory subtleties

The Five Senses a flawed but noble effort

Saturday January 20, 2001 12:04 am EST

Very loosely organized around those receptors of the world's stimuli — taste, touch, smell, sight, sound — Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses shows how his eclectic cast of characters function at various levels of engagement with the world: savoring one aspect, but missing others entirely.
Centered on the occupants of a Toronto office building, Podeswa's atmospheric but at times pretentious drama deals with their intersecting and individual pains and a search for connection.
The world weighs heavier on certain players in Senses than others. One of the story's hardest hit is grave, tragedy-afflicted optometrist Richard (Philippe Volter), who is gradually losing his hearing and is prone to suddenly stop and "smell" life's aural bouquet, crouching in a remote corner of his office, listening for fragments of conversation to drift up from the air vent he shares with the masseuse's office in the same building, or stopping in the building's hallways to luxuriate in the opera practice of a fellow tenant.
And at the masseuse's office, The Five Senses joins several other characters, who are suddenly united by a mutual tragedy. While her mother Ruth (Gabrielle Rose) massages a customer, gloomy teenage dropout Rachel (Nadia Litz) escorts the customer's 3-year-old to the park, and then promptly loses the child. The missing child sets off disturbances in other characters' lives too, like another building resident, Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), who sees the disappearance as a reminder of the trouble brewing beneath life's surface.
An actress who always manages to bring a freshness and spark of wit to her roles, Parker plays a baker who creates elaborate architectural cakes for a living. Her trouble arrives in the form of a high-maintenance but charming Italian she met on vacation who has flown to Toronto to shack up in her apartment. The sense of "taste" in this segment of the film seems as much about Rona allowing herself a voluptuary's delight in life's banquet and the sybaritic Roberto (Marco Leonardi), as her more obvious, related effort to learn how to bake a better-tasting cake. Rona turns for guidance in dealing with the intrusive, amorous Italian to her bisexual house cleaner friend Robert (Daniel MacIvor), who is also on a seemingly fruitless romantic course.
Robert has been setting up reunions with a cast of former male and female lovers to discern if any still have a lingering affection for him. A house cleaner with a highly developed sense of smell, Robert believes, "you can smell love. If anyone I used to be with still loves me, I'll be able to tell."
The Five Senses has, as details like Robert's search for the "smell" of love reveal, much potential for the kind of carefully orchestrated but cloyingly inert moments that compose a music video conception of romance. Podeswa has a taste for heavy-handedness that can often border on the ponderous, whether in naming the masseuse with the healing touch the angelic "Ruth Seraphin" or in Robert's discovery that there actually is a "scent of love" given to him in an exquisite perfume bottle before a ménage a trois with two of his sexier house cleaning clients.
The setting of Senses is also often distractingly beautiful. No matter where they rate on the socio-economic food chain, every citizen of Canada — whether designer, house cleaner or cake baker — is apparently entitled to a gorgeous loft done up in tasteful neutrals. As in Atom Egoyan's films, which tend to use setting to emphasize the distance between people, there is a certain architectural and emotional chilliness in common in Senses — a sleekness to the environs and the people who roll off of each other too, and stay slippery to the touch.
Senses is often heavier on style than substance, though its complex characters and intricate storyline have their own appeal. The film may not plumb the psycho-sexual depths or latch onto the more resonant aspects of an Atom Egoyan or a Patricia Rozema film (both of whom are thanked in The Five Senses).
Podeswa strives for a mix of Egoyan's subtle, ripening emotions and the human floundering for "meaning" and connection, but he, too, often gilds the lily with hyper-poetic, affected, overly precious details. A film without this one's high production values and able cast would have been doomed by such overstepping of its bounds. And for this reason, The Five Senses remains more a noble effort than a complete success.

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