Jeremy Podeswa’s sophomore feature is a very serious, decidedly
literary ensemble film about the struggles of a group of
Toronto citizens to achieve human contact over a three-day
period during which a young girl is missing, a presumed
victim of foul play. One might expect a story which deals,
even peripherally, with a child’s disappearance to take on a mawkish, TV-movie-of-the-week tone, but Podeswa avoids that. Instead he uses theever-present mystery of the tyke’s absence to create a pervasivemood of uncertainty and potential doom, against which he
presents a cleverly crafted piece about the ways in which
five major characters, each with a trait linked to one of the
five senses, seek to build relationships, however flawed
they might be. The result is an intriguing little picture
which happily shuns overt sentimentality but in the process
becomes a mite too too cerebral and affected for its own good.
Among the main figures are a masseuse named Ruth (Gabrielle
Rose) who, in spite of her occupation, can’t connect with her
disaffected drop-out adolescent daughter Rachel (Nadia Litz).
When Anna (Molly Parker) comes in for a treatment, Rachel takes
the woman’s tag-along kid into a nearby park, but loses the
girl when she’s distracted by a couple’s nearby lovemaking. As
the search for the youngster accelerates, Ruth reaches out
to show her empathy with Anna, while Rachel falls in with a
punkish fellow with voyeuristic tendencies (Brendan Fletcher).
Meanwhile a neighbor woman, Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), a baker
whose cakes are gorgeous to look at but inedible (she lacks a
sense of taste, you see) finds herself visited by a gregarious
Italian chef (Marco Leonardi) while commiserating with her
best friend, gay house-cleaner Robert (Daniel MacIvor), who’s
systematically meeting with all his old lovers in the belief
that he can sniff out whether any are still enamored of him.
And, finally, there’s a nearby optometrist (Philippe Volter)
whose encroaching deafness leads him to seek solace in the arms
of Gail (Pascale Bussieres). Thus all the senses are covered,
some in multiple ways, by the complex, intersecting storyline;
the resolution suggests that people can escape their
isolation even in difficult circumstances, and imperfectly.
Podeswa keeps his intricate scheme clear for the viewer, and
gets mostly solid performances from his ensemble cast. There’s
some unevenness from one story strand to another, of course
(the cook without taste seems a rather heavy-handed conceit,
for example, and the entire episode centering on the optometrist
has a draggy feel), and he doesn’t entirely avoid a feeling
of artificiality and pretension in the telling, largely as a
result of a very deliberate, sometimes heavy-handed directorial
style. Moreover, in dealing with so many characters at once
and continuously switching focus from one to another, Podeswa
fails to present any of them as completely rounded individuals.
In the final analysis, despite one’s appreciation for the
writer-director’s avoidance of the simplistically maudlin
tone such a story might have encouraged and considerable
admiration for his serious intent, it’s Podeswa’s rather
bookish dedication to constructing a layered but not very
deeply textured plot, along with his inability to create fully
realized characters, that lessens his picture’s impact.
Curiously, for a film whose title emphasizes the corporeal
powers, “The Five Senses” ultimately proves too cooly
and calculated to have a strong emotional impact. It
succeeds in engaging the mind, but never really touches the