Smelling love, tasting pain 

To fashion a film around the five senses, tackle the grand themes of love and interdependence, then have all the action center around one Toronto neighborhood during the course of three days signals that writer/director Jeremy Podeswa has a few narrative aces up his sleeve.

“A big part of what I like to do,” he says, “is take these large, universal themes and put them into a very relatable, intimate context. I think the easiest way for people to grapple with really huge things is to see how they play out on a really small scale.”

It’s also a way to draw people into a film which explores the ways fate and chance still factor into our lives, despite our obsession with control and order. Podeswa also believes that populating a film with a multitude of characters gives viewers more opportunities to make a strong emotional connection.

“I like the idea of taking a prismatic view of a subject,” he explains, “and for me the film was about how people connect or don’t connect and the difficulties they have in relating to each other. What it implies is that no matter what your particular situation, everyone’s in the same boat. That gives the audience a lot of points of identification as well, so they can see where they fit into the story.”

The Five Senses (opening Friday, Aug. 11, at the Maple Art Theatre in Bloomfield Township) is the type of film that works almost subliminally. The cumulative experiences of the diverse characters drive the film more than a point-A-leads-to-point-B type of story line.

Taking a cue from that master of subtlety Eric Rohmer (the French director whose films follow a theme such as the Moral Tales or are patterned on cycles such as the four seasons), the 38-year-old Canadian filmmaker began working with an idea influenced by Diane Ackerman’s 1990 nonfiction book, A Natural History of the Senses.

“When people are writing scripts,” Podeswa says, “usually they start with the main character or the story. I really just started with this idea, and I knew it would play out as a metaphor somehow, but I didn’t really have any idea at that time what the narrative would be. So it was for me then (a process) of finding out what story to tell that would best elucidate the ideas I wanted to deal with. It was an interesting way to write because it starts from a very intellectual place and then gets very, very personal and emotional and much less intellectual as you develop it.”

The characters in Podeswa’s universe are defined in large part by their senses. Each individual has a dominant one, and their responses to it drive their actions.

One woman, for instance, makes her living fashioning elaborate theme cakes which qualify as works of art. But even though they’re stunning to look at, they’re essentially tasteless, bland confections, a fact which reflects her response to not just food, but pleasure in general.

Of all the senses, the toughest one to grapple turned out to be smell.

“That was the biggest challenge as a writer,” Podeswa explains, “because the other senses are more obviously cinematic. Smell is such an abstract, nonfilmic kind of sense that I just didn’t know what to do with it, and then this idea came to me — a very fanciful idea — that this guy could smell love, or thinks he can smell love.

“They say smell is the most direct sense in a way,” he continues, “because it’s the only one you actually take into your body. The particles enter your nose and you chemically absorb them into your system. It’s a very intimate kind of thing. Smell is connected to memory, it’s connected to many kinds of personal things. We tend to not think about it very much because it seems like it’s less important than being able to see or hear. But it does have a strong emotive quality and does help with your appreciation of life.”

One theme that’s key to Podeswa’s films is the idea that invisible links exist between people. His first feature, Eclipse (1994), is loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and follows a diverse group of Toronto residents who are unknowingly connected via sexual partners during the desire-fueled days before a solar eclipse. In The Five Senses, what the characters discover is not just how much they rely on each other, but how to reassess their value as individuals.

“They learn what they have to offer,” he explains, “and they learn to accept what other people have to offer them. It sounds like a very obvious kind of thing, but a lot of people get stuck in these kinds of patterns that are very self-destructive in the way they conduct their lives, and it’s really good when something shakes them out of that.”

Jeremy Podeswa ultimately takes a very compassionate view of his characters, offering them light at the end of their individual tunnels.

“What was important to me,” he says, “was that there was an overall sense of hope and optimism, and at the same time there was a kind of reality. Everybody in life deserves a happy ending, but not everybody gets one.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail

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