Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses is the latest entry in what has almost become a sub-genre: the "failure to communicate" tapestry. The movie takes place in a Canadian city over the three days that it takes to solve the disappearance of a little girl. A handful of strangers – all of them have links to the building that the child was visiting when she vanished – reach the heights of various spiritual and emotional crises in that time, and each of their malaises is symbolically associated with one of the five senses. A sullen teenage girl (Nadia Litz) loses the child while spying on a couple making love in a city park; her mother, a masseuse (Gabrielle Rose), is unable to translate her gift of touch into love for her daughter; an eye doctor (Phillipe Voltar) is thrown into despair when he learns that he’s going deaf; a housecleaner (Daniel MacIvor) with an ultrasensitive nose tries to learn which of his ex-lovers might be his soul-mate by sniffing them for the "smell of love"; and a cake decorator (Mary-Louise Parker) finds her romantic taste tested when an old flame from Italy drops in on her. All of these people are yearning for love – to connect – but they’re imprisoned by the momentum of their loneliness.
Chances are you may like The Five Senses if you liked Welcome to L.A., Grand Canyon, or Magnolia. Like those earlier films, Senses holds hands with the meekest, most disaffected parts of ourselves, and tells us, "This too shall pass." But it’s trying to allay a despair that it doesn’t make us feel, for The Five Senses doesn’t burn with inspiration or passion. (It feels like the output of a filmmaker who couldn’t think of a stronger subject.) Podeswa has acknowledged Robert Altman as an influence, but Altman’s movies are filled with a superabundant sense of life, so that his people – however tentative or lost – are alive, speaking in living rhythms and never completely revealing themselves to us. Podeswa, though, unable to enjoy his characters with such secular relish, consigns them to a Purgatory of pinched and pained expressions.
The Five Senses’ calculated veneer includes a highly diffused lighting scheme, and strewn throughout the movie are a thousand rectangles that reflect the characters’ boxed-in lives. Podeswa’s people are forever conveniently planted in front of these shelves, boxes, window frames, doorways, and hallways – so many rectangles, in fact, that after a while you begin each scene by scanning the set for the inevitable shape. The movie is like a down comforter that the art-house crowd can wrap itself in. (Even the fact that one character remains out in the cold at the end doesn’t carry any sting because the character has no weight.) Podeswa has left scant room for the accidents that nudge movies into life – a glimpse of the little girl that makes her look like a comic troll made me giddy with gratitude. The movie’s few deliberate attempts at wit are sodden with overuse. (The single girl and the gay guy share a bitch-session about the types of people one shouldn’t fall in love with.)
It would have been nice to have gotten a lived-in sense of these three days – a more certain sense of when each day was beginning and ending, and the concurrent rises and falls in the characters’ moods. Instead, Podeswa’s restraint – really an over-refined taste – never lets his characters turn the corner from topic sentences into living people. The Five Senses is an Eleanor Rigby movie for those depressed cineastes who love the idea that the world is made up of lonely people. Where do they all come from?
– Tom Block