The trailer for "The Five Senses," set in Toronto and featuring Mary-Louise Parker as a vaguely (and chicly) unhappy cake baker and Daniel MacIvor as her best friend Robert, a bisexual housecleaner, makes it look like a tastefully saucy urban sex comedy for the art-house trade. That's the movie I wish I'd seen.
Written and directed by Jeremy Podeswa, "The Five Senses" is actually a somber Canadian picture that buries its likable moments of quirky humor under studied art-house gloom. If there was any direct sunlight at all in the picture, I missed it. The entire movie seems to take place in dark hallways or mahogany rooms where the curtains are kept drawn. We might be looking at the Corleones' Canadian summer home.
That glum tone is too bad because Podeswa is drawn toward notions that have the potential to be engagingly silly. Parker's Rona bakes fancy cakes that look great but have no taste. Her Italian boyfriend Roberto (Marco Leonardi), who has come to stay with her after the two have had a holiday fling, is a cheerful stud who probably couldn't express his adoration of Rona more strongly if his English were better. The sweet-tempered Roberto is also a terrific cook who outshines Rona in the kitchen seemingly with no effort. I know this all sounds like a setup for one of those arty food movies in which people learn to make tasty dishes as a result of their sensual fulfillment. But it's also a pretty funny setup for a romantic comedy about mixed lines of communication.
Parker seems ready and right for bright, cynical comedy. Her Rona carries about her an air of jaded surprise, like a small-town girl who's secretly shocked at life in the big city but wised up enough to act knowing. You get the feeling that having a bisexual ex-lover as her best friend is as essential to her as wearing this season's in colors. Robert goes about his cleaning job with the flamboyant fastidiousness of someone who fantasizes that he's onstage while he works; he's like Felix Unger as a Martha Graham dancer. "For the last few weeks I've been seeing the people I used to love and smelling them," he tells Rona. He claims he can smell love, and his lines deliver giggles. Which wouldn't be a problem, except that Podeswa means us to find Robert's olfactory quest a poignant symbol of romantic loneliness.
Eventually all the movies characters connect, if just in passing, and if Podeswa had played up their neuroses and quirks (instead of investing them with symbolic meaning), he might have had an ensemble comedy about the travails of people trying to find love in the city and the strange and unexpected connections they make. Yet any comic sense the movie might develop is lost in Podeswa's taste for portentous concepts that land with tastefully muffled thuds.
The most obvious is the story of Richard (Philippe Volter), an eye doctor who's going deaf. That may be the most hootworthy symbol in any movie since "Crimes and Misdemeanors," in which Woody Allen used Sam Waterston as a blind rabbi to suggest the death of God. It's touching to see him listen to the voice of an opera singer coming through the heating grate of his office. But the moment has been so carefully planned to be touching that the irony is mechanical rather than gentle. Even before we know of Richard's impending loss of hearing we know he's in trouble. The camera frames him behind the aquarium in his office, and the shot has obvious meaning: He's drowning. In the majority of scenes featuring Richard, he's in the company of a sympathetic call girl (Pascale Bussiires), who takes it upon herself to assure him that even after he goes deaf, life will still be worth living. Bussiires, who was so poignant earlier this year as the harried mother in Lea Pool's "Set Me Free", has the appearance of a more aquiline Lara Flynn Boyle. She can look alert and slightly dazed at the same time, and she brings the movie a touch of careworn humanity that's more emotionally accessible than much else that's going on.
The movie's heavy spiritedness centers on the story of a little girl who disappears while in the care of sullen teenager Rachel (Nadia Litz). The little girl's mother is Anna (Molly Parker, the young necrophiliac in "Kissed"), a former teacher of Rachel's and a client of Rachel's masseuse mother, Ruth (Atom Egoyan regular Gabrielle Rose, who played the bus driver in "The Sweet Hereafter"). I know that some people are awfully sensitive to movies in which a child is potentially in danger -- who can blame them? So in fairness to Podeswa, let me say that he handles this section of the film honorably. Early on he lets us in on something the rest of the characters don't know: Though lost, the little girl is safe. (If he hadn't, we might not be able to focus on the rest of the characters.)
"The Five Senses" is too carefully made to be called bad, exactly, but it engages fewer senses than its title promises. It feels something like the sensory deprivation tank that Anna is locked in at the picture's start. Deliberate as the movie is, Podeswa keeps straying to the potentially humorous as if even he were impatient with his own seriousness. The conflict between those two impulses is most evident in the scenes between the teenage Rachel, a kid who carries all the resentment she feels at the world in the perpetual scowl behind her tiny black glasses, and Rupert (Brendan Fletcher), a boy she encounters in the park, peeping on a secluded cruising spot.
There's something almost touching in the way these two kids, confused about their own sexual desires, make tentative confessions to each other. As she listens to Rupert talk about how he likes to watch the faces of people having sex, you see the beginning of a softening in Rachel's face, as well as a hint that she's turned on. But when she dresses him up in drag, the scene is presented with grave solemnity, as if there could be no sympathy if we were to laugh.
It's hard for a movie to achieve any lightness when it swathes itself in all this dark-brown aestheticism, or when it looks so askance at its impulses to indulge in frivolous sensual pleasure. Podeswa's intended sophistication about how people hook up and break apart takes on the feel of life lessons imparted with bland benevolence. At one point, sniffing a perfume, Robert, he of the sensitive proboscis, says, "It smells like love." "The Five Senses" ends up smelling like something, but it ain't love.