Joachim Lafosse’s The Restless begins with a stranding at sea. Damien (Damien Bonnard), a rising art star at the beginning of a manic episode, jumps off his chartered motorboat to swim ashore, leaving his elementary-aged son Amine (Gabriel Merz Chammah) to drive back to the beach where his mother, Leïla (Leïla Bekhti), nervously awaits them both. The day passes, and Leïla scales the rocky beach up to a green-shaded overlook, anxiously trying to spot Damien. Eventually, he turns up slightly down shore, shouting in good spirits and restless after a marathon swim.
This opening sets the tone for the remainder of the film, the two-hour runtime of which is structured as a symmetrical diptych: the first hour carries us up the rising tide of Damien’s manic episode, while the second hour follows the aftermath of his muted comedown. Like a wave crashing at shore before its riptide pulls everything back out to sea, there’s a natural, rhythmic, and at times beautiful violence to Lafosse’s well-balanced portrayal of the domestic fallout of Damien’s bipolar disorder, which he, rightly or wrongly, treats as both an artistic blessing and personal curse.
Early in the film, we see a manic Damien foregoing sleep in favor of work on large-scale figurative paintings created in exaggerated, sweeping strokes. Lafosse’s visual language is not dissimilar to Damien’s aesthetic, and often painterly in its own right; at times naturally-lit, scenes are rife with primary color motifs. Damien and his son are often dressed in blues and yellows (complementary opposites on the color wheel), until Damien’s hospitalization. After Damien returns to his daily regimen of lithium pills, the colors become much more muted, and Lafosse begins to paint the world with a greenish tinge while we pay witness to such struggles as Damien’s attempts to get out of bed.
Lafosse’s choice to use an expansively wide aspect ratio also allows for carefully balanced shots that, at times, manage to be both far-reaching and suffocating. Often, the width of the frame captures the reactions of Damien’s family and his gallerist, while also constraining any view of the environment beyond the horizontal of the domestic interaction, making for a visual logic capable of engaging all characters emotionally — the sufferer, and those who suffer as a result of their suffering — while also capturing the isolation wrought by the domestic conditions created by Damien’s mental health struggles. In moments of high emotion, the background blurs to an impressionistic haze, and as the camera closes in on the faces of Damien or Leïla, the broader world is washed away in the camera’s fluid movements.
Isolation is a major theme in The Restless, and Lafosse’s choice of setting for the film establishes a creeping eeriness that begins to feel all-enclosing in the film’s second half. Throughout, we rarely see the family leave their rural home, other than to be by the water. In moments, it can feel almost as if we’re observing a case study in a controlled environment, with the subject of study being the dissolution of identity during familial destabilization. Damien struggles to balance the creative and destructive ramifications of his illness, as his manic highs lead him to produce inspired creative work, all while causing his family to implode.
Leïla, who works as an antiques restorer from their home, struggles to maintain a sense of identity outside of looking after Damien and Amine; at one point, in a moment of collapsing emotion, she cries, “All I do is take care of you two.” Bekhti’s performance is particularly impassioned, and any forward momentum the film’s second half has is a result of the emotional strength of her embodiment of a mother trying to rebuild herself, her spouse, and her family. Amine, meanwhile — who’s only school-age — struggles to establish a sense of self relative to his father. He relishes in Damien’s boundless energy by the water at the beginning of the film, though by the midway point, he is overcome with shame when his sleepless father barges into his classroom to rally the teacher, and young students, to go on a spontaneous outing to a lake three hours away. Amine’s fluid sense of identity is reactive to that of his father; at times he is a child to Damien, and at times he is a parent.
However, because Lafosse has chosen to depict the family in isolation of the broader world around them, we’re deprived of the chance to baseline who Damien, Leïla, and Amine are outside the context of Damien’s illness. Without a point of reference, how can we even begin to interrogate questions of identity? And narratively, the family’s isolation prevents the film from sustaining a compelling cadence throughout its two-hour runtime, which attempts to maintain traditional beats unfitting of the story’s length, and succumbs to cliched depictions of mental illness — the tortured artist; the cycle of rebirth. For instance, Damien is a man cast “underwater” by his illness: in the film’s first scene, he swims miles to shore and doesn’t sleep for two days; by the end, he can barely lift himself from the bathtub. These guiding designs help Lafosse to create a proficient portrait of a family suffering through mental illness, but they are insubstantial in transcending the genre’s basic template in any memorable way. So while The Restless is a beautiful film that affords viewers the opportunity to luxuriate in Lafosse’s rich and painterly visuals, in the end, it’s hard not to feel that the film’s spirit is ultimately left somewhere slightly out of frame.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.