It's a film one would like to love: Gus Van Sant's tender story of a young man, traumatized by the death of his parents, numbed and unable to connect, who learns to face death by falling in love with a dying pretty girl, who springs eternal with joie-de-vivre. The film is beautifully shot by expert DP Harris Savides, with many lingering shots on the gorgeous impy face of Mia Wasikowska, and some exquisitely artsy images of the couple's silhouette chalked on the ground. The sexual scenes between the two adolescents are tributes to affection. At no point of the story do you get bored, as the dialogues are fresh and symbolic, my favorite being the girl's obsession with birds and their own response to death. One songbird thinks it dies every day, and sings a sublime song when it wakes up in the morning, just happy to be alive.
This is not the first time Van Sant has shown an interest in death -- and facing the void with optimism. In the under-appreciated Gerry, two hardy but video-game-numbed American boys lost in the desert must learn to confront possible extinction, until one "wakes up", leaves the "video-game" and chooses life. In Restless, the boy, played by Dennis Hopper's talented son Henry Hopper, indulges an obsession with staring at corpses, until he too "wakes up" and falls in love with the life-loving song-bird quoting Annabel. The turn-around is symbolized at the end by a funeral banquet of color: the goodies to munch at the girl's wake (not a spoiler -- she's dying!), from red jellybeans to lemon cupcakes.
A film to recommend to anyone who needs a nudge to let go of the numbness caused by grief.
And yet, the film does not ultimately work; it leaves no emotional dent. Its clear sentimental message is just too clear and sentimental, the girl too perfectly happy (she discusses even her impending death with a smile, noting that human beings are just a blip on the screen of time anyway, think of the dinosaurs!). The lingering shots on her supremely joie-de-vivre face become a bit too cloying to actually take her for real, and the love story -- so delicate--risks becoming a linear predictable re-take of its precursor Love Story. Gus Van Sant evidently wants to protect himself from such criticism, so at one point scripts a scene where the lovers out-do themselves in banal assertions of love, until giggling, they admit that for them it is just a script as well. This moment is not enough: more nuance in the screenwriting, less linearity, and more believable "darkness" might have made this alluringly shot and cast film a wrenching experience.
Turning to Gus Van Sant, one wants to know why he chose to make this film: what stake he himself has in facing death, where he stands on his own subject. It turns out he did not have a personal stake. NYU graduate and screenwriter Jason Lew -- and producer Bryce Dallas Howard -- approached Gus with the script: i.e. he was hired. With his other films--Elephant, Gerry and and Last Days, Van Sant stated, he himself embarked on creating the story, inspired by reading newspaper accounts of torrid affairs, interested in seeing whether "fiction cinema can enter this discussion dramatically."
Not surprisingly, when discussing the narrative construction of the film rather than its theme, Van Sant was more passionate, explaining that Restless is about how the camera works. "In my previous films, I was trying not to edit, to be like Bela Tarr. One of the classical things I did in Restless was use dialogue to advance the narrative. Although there is also a listlessness of the narrative as well, not meant to advance it." He also discovered, as he filmed, that his love story resembles many classical French films.
Straddling the genre of an art film and the generic program of a mainstream picture is a tricky equation. Rumor has it this film will be aimed towards the teen market on its release.