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The Five Senses is a gimmick movie. It doesn’t start with characters or a plot, but with a concept: how would one make a movie with five separate stories, each about a different human sense?

The Five Stories

Philippe Volter plays an optometrist who's losing his hearing

First, you set the film in a mixed-use apartment building, with small businesses and residences. Then you fill it with characters who are deeply in touch with one or two senses. On the right is a massage therapist. Next to her is an optometrist who’s been told he’ll lose his hearing in a few months. Next to him is an opera singer with a lovely voice whom nobody has ever seen.

Upstairs lives a baker who makes beautiful cakes worthy of Frank Lloyd Wright, but which taste like sawdust. Finally, the baker’s best friend is a gay man with a heightened sense of smell, on a quest to find the scent of love.

These characters’ stories are woven together, along with about five others, into the rich, complex tapestry of the film. The disappearance of a little girl from a park (the massage therapist’s teenage daughter was supposed to be watching her) catalyzes the events and connections in the movie.

The Gimmick

The idea behind The Five Senses is intriguing, but it doesn’t quite work. The concept is a little too forced. It is too strange, for example, that a man would be able to distinguish German new-car smell from Japanese new-car smell on a friend’s jacket. It is too weird that a hand-made cake could look good without tasting good, or that the baker would be oblivious to that fact.

However, when it needs to, the film leaves its gimmick behind to focus on the characters and the plot. For example, a new lover becomes more important to the baker’s story than her cakes. The lost child predominates the massage therapist’s story, rather than her gift of touch. The man with the incredible sniffer starts reflecting on the difference between love and relationships, making you forget all about his nose.

Bad Patches and Bonus Points

Some of the directing, acting and writing in this film is downright bad — luckily only in a few spots. These bad patches always seemed to crop up during scenes with gay men. One scene shows a teenager peeping on the gay make-out spot. The shot is framed squarely, lit hastily, and acted stiffly, as though the director didn’t want to spend any time filming the embarrassing moment. In other scenes, the dialogue between the men has no ring of truth to it, and the lines are delivered by actors who seem to be giggling inside.

Still, the movie gets points for ambition and for scope. There are five story lines and about ten characters crossing over and under each other. By its very nature, a structure like this inhibits character depth and development. Yet director Jeremy Podeswa is able to weave these stories together in a single coherent tapestry, thematically tied (intellectually, if not viscerally) by the five human senses.