Doomed love with a straight twist, Gus Van Sant’s Restless hides a Last Days morbidity in a quirky teenage romance between a terminally ill girl and a funeral mourner.
Smells Like Teen Spirit by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
I can understand why Restless hasn’t been well received. Yes, it’s an anaesthetic story about cancer, a teenage-angsty treatise on grief and only a ghost’s shadow away from a maudlin adolescent romance, and yet I find Gus Van Sant’s Restless still charming. Perhaps it’s the graceful leads – Mia Wasikowska as cancer patient Annabel or Henry Hopper (son of Dennis, to whom the film is dedicated) as the eminently watchable Enoch, compulsive funeral-goer and high school drop-out. Or perhaps it’s Van Sant’s delicate touch, able to soften the saccharine script into something much more atmospheric. Because it’s not a film about cancer or family tragedy, but rather a love story, in which two souls come briefly together, knowing it won’t be for ever but happy to let themselves get hurt.
From the opening shot of Enoch outlining himself in police chalk, there’s something knowingly morbid about Restless. And while, in all objectivity, it reeks of adolescent nihilism, the scene, so innocently picturesque, barely registers as Enoch’s morbid death wish to have his tender years cut short, maybe in a road traffic accident like his parents. It’s an obsession with death that is familiar by now from the rest of Van Sant’s oeuvre – most notably Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Death-infused critical successes which stave off memories of Van Sant’s more populist Psycho, Good Will Hunting or To Die For, And as a story of fatal attraction Restless falls somewhere in the middle, the brief romance of a couple with no future but plenty of time.
With Annabel as a cancer patient and Enoch expelled from school for hospitalising a fellow student, the pair are safely guarded from the mundane pressures of normal adolescence, revelling instead in the macabre pleasure of dropping in on strangers’ funerals. Finding solace in wake spreads and eulogies, it’s a lack of respect for death which culminates ultimately in Enoch’s smashing of his parents’ grave with a sledgehammer, and which gives them both a fearlessness to sneak into morgues and make up stories about the drawers’ inhabitants, to break into a woodsman’s hut and make love there, or to dare to fall in love at all.
It’s whimsical, no doubt. There’s a through-the-kaleidoscope camera sequence as well as Hiroshi the friendly ghost – an English-speaking kamikaze pilot from the Second World War who plays Battleships and throws stones at passing freight trains with Enoch. But more than mere cinematic quirk, there’s a genuine playfulness to Restless that reminds us they’re just kids, dressed up at Halloween to go trick or treating. And the film is punctuated with childhood passions – learning the Latin names of seagulls by rote or debating the finer gameplay strategies of Monopoly. Arrested in their development by personal tragedy, they’re kids stuck in limbo. And it’s here that Restless is at its most affecting, as Enoch and Annabel brave the inevitability of death and dare to love. Despite an angsty teenage obsession with death, they have all the optimism of youth’s first love – “If it’s not fine it’ll be fine.” Unsure of the future and making the most of the present, they’re like the lark singing its dawn chorus, just happy to be alive and astounded it’s not dead.
The joie de vivre Van Sant instils in Restless is infectious, a kind of gallows humour as the doomed couple unite themselves in Enoch’s comforting chalk outline. The fake death scene, enacted with Shakespearean gusto and an impromptu attempt at seppuku (honourable disembowelling) reveals Van Sant’s intention to undermine the pathos inherent in his script. The film’s mise-en-abyme attempt at a beautiful death only leads to wishful posturing and disagreement. How starkly different the seizure that puts Annabel in hospital. And despite the cinematic cliché of a montage of shared spaces now empty, the ending isn’t tragic but uplifting – a wordless smile of undying support.
Back in his native Portland, there’s a restless unpredictability to Restless, sometimes flowering into pretty Halloween set pieces or ghostly non-sequiturs in parks and cemeteries. But returning to his stomping grounds of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, there’s a gay undercurrent to Van Sant’s film too, and the question of why it’s not a queer romance hangs over Restless like a Japanese homunculus. Maybe it’s a prosaic decision not to swamp the rippling waters of youthful romance with a tidal wave of sexual politics. But with Annabel sporting a sylphlike coiffe and lumberjack shirts as well as the protagonists’ freak outsider chic, there’s a definite queer hue to this fine romance.
Not that Enoch’s about to shake off his black Edwardian finery any time soon. There’s no melodramatic makeover from funereal garb to preppy polo shirts and chinos, it’s not that kind of film. Nor is it Love Story or Wit in its portrait of a malady. But rather, it’s a mental road movie in which a young loner picks up a pretty girl and together they head south towards Death Valley. Inevitably, reluctantly and painfully falling in love en route. My own private adieu.
Restless is released in the UK on 21st October 2011