Last year I came away from Cannes needing to tell as many people as possible to see Blue Valentine, which enthralled and emotionally jarred me thanks to a blend of compelling story-telling and two mesmerizing lead performances ranging from touching to explosive in the space of a few short minutes. Already, only two days in, I feel the same way about Gus Van Sant‘s Restless, the film that today opened the Un Certain Regard section of the festival.
Restless is a similar tale of two entwined souls romantically entangled, but unlike Blue Valentine, which was all about the central pair’s relationship to the extent that it quite wonderfully presented them as living in an impenetrable and ultimately devastating bubble, Van Sant throws in a couple of narrative conceits and a hugely gripping hook that adds a different element to the film. Both films share a resolute focus on a final point: while Blue Valentine alludes to it (the relationship’s end) thanks to an alinear narrative structure, Restless reveals very early on that Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) has a terminal disease that will kill her inside three months, which gives the story both structure and that killer hook.
This is no Bucket List – there are no grand, sweeping gestures, no life affirming to-do-lists to complete in order to feel complete before death. Instead we are offered a portrait of a young couple, both aged by their personal tragedies (one by her illness, the other by the death of his parents), yet unwilling and unable to cast off the quirks of youth. Their love affair and friendship are necessarily defined by the immediacy of their situation but also by their young age, and on-screen they share some extremely touching moments that some cynics might call manipulative, but that I call perfectly observed, and surprisingly affecting.
In many ways, Restless is not a Cannes film: it doesn’t really fit the auteur film mold as it is not typically Van Santian; it is not as consciously provocative or odd as last some of the films that tend to be selected (like Sleeping Beauty this year, and R U There last); and it cannot be classed as a tent-pole blockbuster preview in the same vein as Pirates of the Caribbean 4. But it is certainly my kind of film. It is an engaging portrait of blossoming love, marked by personal idiosyncrasies and decorated by a flourish of unrepentant imagination that has the simplest of messages at its heart, that life is to be celebrated no matter what the circumstances or boundaries.
This is not, as I have already seen it called, an attempt to make a quirky, awkward teen rom-com: there are few of the cliches of that sub-genre, little here is so blatant, and there is no self-effacing awkwardness – neither Michael Cera nor Jesse Eisenberg could have starred here, and achieved the success of the film. The male lead, Enoch, played with disarming charisma by Henry Hopper is an unavoidably engaging character, whose supposed enjoyment of funerals is more to do with a later revelation that he missed that of his parents, rather than some obligatory quirk, and Mia Wasikowska’s handling of her character is both spirited and admirable for its subtlety. There is no bleeding-heart melancholy, nor any extended and unnecessary scenes of her suffering: her character endures specifically despite her condition, and we aren’t supposed to pity her – which is perhaps why she wears few signs of outward illness (which I maintain is NOT necessary, and is in itself heinously manipulative). The chemistry between the pair starts off quite inertly, but then, as their relationship develops, and Enoch becomes less of a self-alienating lost soul around Annabel, it blossoms on-screen, and both actors can be proud of what they have achieved here.
The quirks of the script and its characters might put some viewers off slightly, and there is a definite hint of the Donnie Darko Effect (which spawned a thousand filmic caricatures), but there are only so many films I can see where the couple in question are painfully normal, and whose romance is predictably inert. So, why not have the male lead’s best friend the ghost of a Kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase)? Why not have Annabel and Enoch meet when he crashes a wedding she is attending? I watch films precisely because of their escapist element, and whether I’m supposed to be ashamed or not, I find cinematic romances one of the best form of escapist art, so for me the more imaginative the better, as long as everything serves a purpose. And crucially, the various idiosyncrasies of the characters are not mere distractions from their story: the magic realism element that Van Sant introduces (because Hiroshi the ghost is definitely real) helps decipher the overall message of the film. Ultimately, Restless is about life, not death: and in uttering the simple, over-used sentiment “better late than never” Enoch hits the spot in terms of what the film is trying to say.
Okay, so the narrative drive gets a little sloppy in the middle, and you can’t ignore the fact that the teens’ various idiosyncrasies are occasionally a little preposterous, but those quirks are revealed to be part of Enoch’s revelation as a character, and overall the film is a tender and touching portrait of a fleeting love affair tempered by, and leading towards tragedy. By the end I was nearly heartbroken, perhaps because the story struck a personal chord with me, but definitely not because of an agenda of manipulation. In fact there are very few manipulative scenes, and there is no urge by the script or the direction to lament Annabel’s situation, or even her death at the end. This is definitely a more emotionally-leaning Van Sant film, but thanks to a touching focus on the pair’s romance, which is very much not Van Santian, the film proves that the director can make something that is both conventionally romantic, and retains his indie credentials.
The Upside: Van Sant continues to be the king of describing youth on-screen, and the injection of more conventional heart (perhaps from producer Ron Howard?) creates a whole new viewing experience for his fans.
The Downside: It does start rather slowly, and I have no doubt that some will find it annoying.