Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much unsolicited information you can get out of somebody just by asking the simplest of questions. Consider this sample exchange:
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Oh, not much. You know, just out enjoying the sunshine. Got up late, gonna go grab some breakfast and get a new tube for my bike. I got an old girlfriend in town and we’re going to head up the back of Mount Sentinel.”
Phrases like “what’s up” belong to what’s called phatic speech: empty (though, in a sense, earnest) little salutations and conversational placeholders that everybody uses to a certain extent. You can hardly speak English and not use them. If you were to consciously excise them from your speech patterns, your fiendish literal-mindedness would probably freak more people out than would be touched by your robotic interest in just the facts.
But when you think about it, starting with a zero like “what’s up” and finding out so much—about the person’s sleeping habits, plans for the day, and even circumstantial evidence about their sexual preferences—is a pretty impressive feat! There are languages and cultures in the world in which the free transfer of so much information is not only unusual or untoward but almost scandalously inappropriate. Speakers of Malagasy, for example, who number in the millions on the island of Madagascar, have such a dearth of free exchange hard-wired into their language that even simple requests and innocuous questions are subject to strictures and taboos that would boggle the mind of an English speaker.
On the face of it, it seems like a pretty impoverished way to navigate the world. Or at least a severely reductive one. But faced with the amount of information that a film like The Five Senses confronts you with, there’s definitely something to be said for having the proverbial voice of the Malagasy—which is to say, a paradoxically informative absence of information—to keep you on the objective path.
The name alone should tell you that The Five Senses is going to be lush and dripping with sensuality. The opening scene—a woman floating languorously in a bathtub—should put any doubt of this behind you. The focus is always on the human, too; against the chilly backdrop of a Toronto fall and a succession of sparely-decorated apartments and modernistic restaurants, the characters look especially pink and vulnerable.
The name also hints strongly that the five senses themselves are going to figure prominently into the film. Which they do. Sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch all appear as uncredited characters that fill the spaces between the human actors, each of whom and sometimes in groups of two and three are all tied to one sense in particular. Some of these ties have a certain irony about them, and at least one is downright O. Henry.
Curiously, all the characters whose names begin with R are the ones encoded with the motifs of sense. Rona (Mary-Louise Parker) makes designer cakes that look superb but don’t taste very good. Richard (Philippe Volter) is an ophthalmologist who is slowly going deaf. Roberto is the fling Rona had on her Italian vacation; he comes to visit and, since he can’t make himself understood to Rona in either English or Italian, tries cooking for her instead—that’s right, he cooks for the woman with the stunted sense of taste. The lonely Robert (Daniel MacIvor) is obsessed with the idea that love has a smell and makes appointments with former lovers to determine if any of them truly loved him. Ruth (Gabrielle Rose) uses therapeutic massage as a way of communing with her dead husband. Her teenage daughter Rachel (Nadia Litz), on the other hand, seems to ruin everything she touches. Rachel meets Rupert (Brendan Fletcher), who likes to spy on people having sex in a city park—he sees but cannot feel.
The Five Senses is a delight to the viewer’s senses: beautifully shot, leisurely paced, exquisitely designed, almost tactile. But what’s really interesting about it is that while the characters disclose a lot about themselves through their words and actions, the structure of the film volunteers little or nothing. Apart from an early disappearance that makes a graceful trajectory from beginning to end, there isn’t much in the way of a plot. There’s actually very little character development and even less in the way of a back story for any of the R-people. Except for the impenetrable Rachel, the characters all manage to be fairly communicative while the narrative maintains an eerie silence.
The main reason this approach works when it really shouldn’t is that director Jeremy Podeswa doesn’t unduly belabor the “five senses” theme. In addition to the connections between the main characters and certain senses and the sense-related connections they establish with each other, there’s a lot of room left open for interpretation. I enjoyed The Five Senses for all the aforementioned reasons; at the same time, the skillfully handled arc of the missing-person device never let me forget that the ball was going to drop somewhere, so I kept waiting for it. And the elliptical ending wasn’t especially satisfying, either.
The superb cast more than made up for any shortcomings, though. Fans of the what-else-has-he/she-been-in game will have a field day trying to figure out where they’ve seen Roberto before (Pedro in Like Water for Chocolate and the adolescent Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso), and French-Canadian dreamboat Pascale Bussieres (a heavy crush for me, along with Alice Krige, ever since Guy Maddin’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs). The Five Senses doesn’t give freely of itself, but what leaks out around the edges makes it more than worthwhile.