13 Nov

Director: Gus Van Sant (2011)

I have a troubled relationship with Gus Van Sant, a director whose artistry behind the camera on an aesthetic level can be so beautiful and can create some truly classic films (See Good Will Hunting, Elephant, Drugstore Cowboy et al) but can simultaneously just get it so very wrong (See Restless). Watching Restless, it is difficult to believe that this film belongs to the same filmography as Milk, Van Sant’s previous film.  Receiving its premiere at Cannes in May 2011 before doing the tour of the international film festivals including the BFI 55th London Film Festival, Restless has already been globally panned by critics and, while it somewhat pains me, I am about to do the same.

While reviewing at the London Film Festival, it began to concern me that the majority of my reviews were glowing reports of cinematic wonder, gushing with praise for the films and blatantly bragging that I had seen these films before you all and you were just going to have to wait to see them for yourselves. Always one to look for the underdog so often overshadowed by the blockbusters of a film festival programme, and an unashamed alt-genre film fan, Restless seemed a natural choice.

Annabel Cotton, played by the beautifully gamine Mia Wasikowska, is our terminally ill protagonist, filled with so much joie de vie she has to wear a hat all the time to stop it pouring out into the world she loves so much. She draws birds even though she can’t draw, has a picture of Charles Darwin in her bedroom, volunteers with the ‘cancer kids’ and enjoys a good funeral. Enoch Brae, played by the brooding permeation of Dennis Hopper genes, Henry Hopper, on the other hand has dropped out of the race for life after the death of his parents. He also enjoys going to strangers funerals.

Wait a minute…we’ve heard this before. Two social outcasts, one tired of life, the other unwillingly coming to the end and desperately clinging on, meeting at a stranger’s funeral before inevitably falling in love and teaching each other about mortality and that life can indeed be worth living? Meet Harold and Maude without the creepy age gap. And with cancer. And a Kamikaze fighter pilot ghost.

Turns out, much that we squirmed watching young and old copulation in Ashby’s classic, it seems we needed this factor to avoid the real repulsion behind this all too twee storyline as Enoch and Annabel deal with the impending end to their relationship and tackle the troubles life has dealt them both together.

It was actually the Kamikaze ghost pilot, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase) that intrigued me about this film, I felt by throwing ‘honourable suicide victim’ into the mix of want-to-live/don’t-want-to-live, we have all bases in the mortality dilemma covered. But this one character that I thought could potentially take Restless out of the mainstream multiplex into the arthouse was grossly underused. This was predominantly because only Enoch can see him, acting as an intermediary mouthpiece between him and Annabel, as a result of his own brush with death that clearly lifted the life/death veil to allow Hiroshi to come through.

Is it arthouse? Is it for the mainstream teens? We don’t know. And I’m not sure that Gus Van Sant knows to be honest, but sadly I think it struggles to fit comfortably in either. While both Wasikowska and Hopper are certainly strong young talents we should be looking out for and will no doubt move up and beyond this early career blip, even their talents couldn’t convince us that these two characters belong to a relationship we should care about.

The couple’s naive nonchalance towards death at a young age might be sensible considering her life threatening and life ending brain tumour, but the formulaic relationship one-wants-to-live-and-love-the-other-wants-to-die is one that has been too often played, and much better played, for it to have any real emotive effect on the audience. Restless struggles to find the balance between indie kook and indie puke (and the award for worst review pun goes to…) missing the necessary delicacy that could exist between the two characters and instead spoon feeding the audience with text book sadness and a forced ‘alternative’ love story. But I do feel there might be a gap in the indie market for more war ghosts as moral compasses.


One Response to “Restless”

  1. Laura Marie Scott November 13, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Great review, very informative. I haven’t seen the film yet, not even a trailer for it, but I am keen on some of Gus van Sant’s other work so I expect I will watch it at some point. When I read the plot synopsis for the film I too thought immediately of Harold and Maude, haha.

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