Double Feature: Beginners / Perfect Sense

Starting over is a part of life most of us dread and avoid whenever. But Beginners transforms the daunting task into a beautifully bittersweet film.

Beginners opens with a stream of consciousness slide show, narrated by Oliver’s (Ewan) hushed voice, “this is 2003, this is the sun … this is what people look like …”. The dreamlike pace and perspective (from soft lighting to colors) make the film seem subconscious == like it’s unfolding in Oliver’s mind. It’s a universe in which even dogs talk, in subtitles.

Melancholy graphic artist Oliver spends his days doodling “the history of sadness” cartoons, when he’s not talking to his dead father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) Jack Russell, or drifting off into memories of him. Like the day he came out in a purple shirt (or at least that’s how Oliver admits imagining it), at the age of 75 after a lifetime of marriage to his slightly wacky wife. A rebirth he celebrated by visiting gay dance clubs, hosting political parties, rewriting Jesus’s death and acquiring a Staples addiction. Oliver spends seconds and hours haunted by the past until at a party he meets sexy but silent Anna (Melanie Laurent), a laryngitis-muted actress with Charlie Chaplin charm and well … the loveliness of Melanie Laurent. Their romance blossoms in an inherently romantic movie with a luminosity cultivated by old-timey love longs, and scenes of the blissful sweethearts skating through the halls of a grand hotel. It’s also a thoughtful, occasionally sluggish treatise on risking love and loss that speaks in existentially eloquent Velveteen Rabbit quotes. Broken into cinematic atoms: it’s a bit Blue Valentine with Annie Hall humor, Lost in Translation’s quiet chemistry (thanks to Ewan and Laurent), and a far happier ending. For those pining for wispy, wistful, witty screen love, Beginners is a good place to begin.

Grade: B+

Despite different directors (Mike Mills and David Mackenzie respectively), Perfect Sense orbits a similarly rarified atmosphere, albeit one stirred by a sudden, and inexplicable apocalypse. Chef Michael (McGregor) and Susan (Eva Green) fall in love at the same time an inexplicable global epidemic triggers overwhelming grief and regret in sufferers followed by a permanent loss of smell. A profoundly solemn female voice narrates that the medical community has named it “Severe Olfactory Syndrome”, i.e. S.O.S. Michael’s restaurant adapts (by spicing up it’s fare), as does the world, though the narrator laments the “greater loss” of the memories no longer triggered –like the cinnamon roll scent that reminds you of grandma (thanks Negative Nelly Narrator). Then the next wave of the mysterious plague hits—terror with ravenous hunger followed by an absence of taste. Ecological reckoning, terrorism, the wrath of God … the world is mystified but indomitably carries on as the strange sickness progresses.

Meanwhile Michael and Susan’s relationship intensifies and deepen as each new loss feeds their craving for connection. Ewan delivers sensitive, soft-spoken male as enchantingly as he does in Beginners (and most of his other films). An intriguing, affecting story, Perfect Sense makes perfect sense--until the end. It clearly has a meaningful message it would like to share about life and humanity, but can’t seem to spit it out. The shutter-slam ending leaves you in the dark, disoriented, with sense of having hit a dead end. Blame the narrator? It’s the build-up of her omniscient, sometimes overly sentimental commentary that leaves you expecting some pithy conclusion that pulls it all together rather than simply put you in the same puzzled shoes as the sense-deprived characters. Without it the movie’s an engrossing sci-fi romance. Even with it, it’s a film that captivates the senses and lingers long after it’s over.