A World Without Sense: Emotional responses to the sensory apocalypse in Perfect Sense (2011)

by Tan Enn Syn, Shona


The loss of physical senses is often accompanied by a sense of fear, as we expect it to serve as a major handicap especially in ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘every man for himself’ apocalyptic scenarios. Traditionally, such physical disabilities are viewed as a hindrance towards a character’s ability to survive, resulting in common ‘helpless victim’ or ‘noble death’ archetypes in film, where their survival in such apocalyptic contexts is deemed simply unrealistic or as a needless burden on able-bodied protagonists (Markotic, 2016). However, in films such as Bird Box (2018) and A Quiet Place (2018) where the senses of sight and sound are restricted respectively, we see an emerging pattern of how human adaptation in the face of such physical handicaps only serves to strengthen them, and enables them to survive regardless of such traditional handicaps. This idea is taken to the extreme in the film Perfect Sense (2011)where humanity is depicted to progressively lose not only one or two, but almost all five physical senses; of smell, taste, hearing and sight. Eventually, only the sense of touch is left, and humanity is left to adapt accordingly in the aftermath of this new global wave of disabilities. 

Interestingly, despite the apocalyptic backdrop in Perfect Sense, the film does not revolve specifically around the means for survival, as there is no imminent threat to characters’ lives. Instead, it questions what it means to go on living in a world in which humans are unable to interact meaningfully with their physical surroundings. In this article, I will then argue that Perfect Sense is a text which, through the exploration of the relationship between physical senses and human emotions, ultimately suggests to viewers that human connection above all is what makes life meaningful even in a post-apocalyptic environment. As such, I posit that the film hence uses the framework of touch as the sole surviving sense as a metaphor for human connection, which culminates alongside the reconciliation arc of the protagonists, thus advocating for adaptation to such apocalyptic situations via the acceptance and understanding of what is truly important in life. 

The intrinsic link between physical senses and human emotions

The film first establishes the losses of physical senses to have a profound emotional impact on characters, potentially jeopardising but also reaffirming human connection.  In Perfect Sense, an apocalyptic viral outbreak manifests itself via the outburst of extreme emotions, followed by the loss of physical senses. This is a gradual process, and we see the loss of the senses occurring one by one, accompanied by their respective triggers of certain extreme emotions. As such, we can observe how the senses and emotions are inextricably linked, as not only do extreme emotions precede the physical loss (as dictated by the virus), but that the loss of senses in turn trigger visceral emotional responses as well. Thus, I find that the film’s cyclical portrayal of the effects of physical senses and emotions establishes a significant interrelation between those two concepts.  Moreover, in Semefulness: A Social Semiotics of Touch, touch is presented to have multiple significances (semefulness) in terms of experiences (Cranny-Francis, 2011). Cranny-Francis further states that “touch between individuals signifies engagement when it is accompanied by other practices visual, verbal, aural, kinaesthetic”, showing how emotional significances and human connection rooted in tangible experiences, is often amplified and greatly affected by the other physical senses – such as sight and hearing. As such, the “semefulness” of multiple physical senses is often seen to be closely connected to emotions, demonstrating a strong link between various sensory experiences and meaningfulness.

Firstly, the loss of smell is preceded by an intense bout of sadness in the film. Susan (the female protagonist), is hit by a wave of grief while reminiscing about her father, which prompts Michael (the male protagonist) to escort her back to her home. From there, their first connection is established, and the two respectively share moments of intense grief, before simultaneously realising that afterwards, they have lost their sense of smell. While other periphery characters react to the loss of smell with various emotional responses of panic, anger and frustration, it can also be noted the main couple respond rather mutedly in comparison, with an overall attitude of rationality and acceptance rooted in them seeking solace in the other’s remaining sense of physical touch. 

Next, the loss of taste is preceded by extreme paranoia that descends into rabid gluttony and bingeing on whatever object is available in the vicinity, including lipstick, flowers and raw fish. As such, the loss of control and awareness of the loss of taste is subsequently met with widespread emotional responses of horror and self-disgust. Afterwards, the loss of hearing is preceded by bouts of extreme rage and violence. Finally, sight is the last sense to be lost, preceded by intense euphoria and sentimentality, which plays a key role in evoking forgiveness and a desire for reconciliation between the two protagonists, thus resulting in their final reunification. Interestingly, it can also be seen that a certain reversal of order exists throughout this process; through the unusual premise of the experience of intense emotions before the actual loss of the physical senses, instead of only the other way around whereby such extreme emotions arise only afterwards, as a response to such loss. As such the cyclical nature and emotionally intertwined process of the loss of senses potentially establishes a subconscious link and significant dependency of human emotions on the senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight.

The chaos caused by extreme emotions, resulting in the frenzied devouring of raw fish

Overall, the various physical senses are shown to be key in creating tangible experiences, which are then tied to memories and emotions. In one scene following the loss of smell, a street performer playing a violin encourages bystanders to remember and appreciate the beauty of the experience of autumn. The performer utilises music, as well as aural descriptions of images of nature, in order to construct an immersive multi-sensory experience that attempts to compensate for and relive the sense of smell that was lost. By evoking other senses like sight (through visualization) and hearing, the ‘smell of autumn’ is reclaimed through the reconstruction of experiential memories based on the combination of multiple senses; a message that seems to resonate with the bystanders in the scene. As such, we can see how deeply physical senses are intertwined with the creation of memories and tangible experiences, and hence how each of the senses have multiple significances (semefulness) which arises in visceral emotional responses. Nonetheless, the enduring sense of touch is seen to be the essential link underpinning all these emotional interactions, in order to maintain a form of human connection.

Differing responses and impacts on human relationships

Situated in a context where people respond to the sensory losses with either acceptance or destructive denial, Susan and Michael are presented to often choose to adapt and continue on with life, while maintaining close tactile relationship with each other. As such, this connection enables Michael to retain motivation to take on an active role in reclaiming agency, despite the loss of taste and smell, by facing the sensory challenges head-on in his capacity as a chef. Michael is determined to reclaim a meaningful culinary experience despite the loss of the senses of smell and taste, finding a way to highlight textures – rather than flavours or scents – in his new dishes in order to accommodate the masses in a world in which humans no longer have the senses of smell or taste needed to enjoy food in the traditional sense. The film’s narrator remarks that “taste becomes a distant memory, and different sensations take its place”, showing the re-navigation of social landscapes, and how characters learn to utilise their remaining senses in order to carry on with life and still derive enjoyment from tangible experiences. In a similar vein, Susan’s emotional response is also one of acceptance, choosing to maintain her usual relationships with her colleagues and family, through regular physical interactions. As such, a response of acceptance and adaptability in dealing with the loss of physical senses can be explored as what the film endorses, whereby enriching human connection is sustained through tangible interactions.

However, even the protagonists are not spared from the undeniably alienating and isolating effects of such drastic losses of physical capabilities and the bitter emotions that it elicits. As such, the detrimental outcomes are also accompanied by the film’s portrayal of the severance of physical touch and human connection. For instance, the film’s biggest conflict arises as a result of Michael’s outburst of extreme anger preceding the loss of hearing. Due to the verbal abuse endured as well as the witnessing of Michael’s virus-induced violent destructive rage, Susan separates herself from Michael. As such, the negativity of emotions tied to the loss of yet another physical sense can be seen as a key force behind the disconnection/ split of the main couple, which the film presents as the biggest source of conflict in the narrative. Hence, the power of the loss of physical senses in influencing an individual’s emotional response can be seen to both be able to strengthen as well as fragment human relationships, occasionally leading to physical isolation that is seen as damaging.

Michael’s violent and destructive outburst of rage

Perfect Sense’s new understanding of ‘what is truly meaningful’ in life 

Overall, the film presents an understanding of the importance of human connection in the aftermath of the almost complete loss of physical senses. This connection, as represented by the reconciliation of the main couple, is viewed through the lens of the sole remaining sense of physical touch. As such this places a spotlight on the tactile sense, due to the cinematic portrayal of its position as the last physical sense left intact, signifying its prioritization and ultimate importance. Additionally, the final stage of euphoria that precedes the loss of sight is unusual in the film’s context leading up to the climax, as the positivity of the emotions of such joy and overwhelming forgiveness is the first of its kind so far, in stark contrast to the previous panic, paranoia, sadness and rage. Hence, the breaking of prior narrative patterns also cues viewers, via cinematic and visual calls to attention, of the significance of this final development. 

Cranny-Francis further elucidates on the concept of touch, with a definition that “Touch is semeful in that it is full of meanings physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual…touch locates us in the world, connects us to each other, and enables us to operate effectively as embodied individuals and as social subjects” (Cranny-Francis, 2011). As such, we can view physical touch and tactile senses as the lens through which Perfect Sense attempts to establish the significance of human connection. Touch blurs the boundaries between the self and the Other (Cranny-Francis, 2011), and hence we can see the depth of interaction and meaningful human connection created, via all-encompassing emotional engagement. As such, the final scene whereby Michael and Susan reach out to embrace each other just as the world turns dark, positions touch as the remaining sense left in the world. Hence the film ultimately emphasises the sense of touch as both a symbolic metaphor and anchor for human connection, and hence meaningful engagement in a world in which the rest of the physical senses are absent.  

Susan and Michael reunite in each other’s arms just as they lose their sense of sight


In conclusion, Perfect Sense can be seen as a strong advocate for human connection as the most meaningful thing in life. Human connection, as represented by the sole remaining sense of touch as well as the reunion of the protagonists in the film, is depicted as valuable and long-lasting, even as other pursuits and activities lose their meaning and importance in the face of such sensory losses. As such the film utilizes fears of a sensory apocalypse to encourage audiences to be grateful for the richness of life as we know it (with all senses intact) and yet leaves a message of hope and adaptability, as ‘life goes on after loss’. 

Cranny-Francis, A. (2011). Semefulness: A Social Semiotics of Touch. Social Semiotics, 21(4: Touch), 463-481.

Malte Grunert, G. B. (Producer), & Mackenzie, D. (Director). (2011). Perfect Sense [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Senator Film Verleih, ICF Films.

Markotic, N. (2016). Disability in Film and Literature. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.

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