I have distinct memories of watching Gus Van Sant's Elephant a few years back before I had become heavy in film viewing and critical analysis. Despite this I remember reacting to it with awe, because I knew it was something different as far as filmmaking goes and was completely enamored by its presence. Little did I know that Gus Van Sant was a prolific director or that he would go on to make the Oscar favorite Milk. Needless to say, over the years I have come to appreciate Van Sant's work, particularly those dealing with the experiences of gay individuals, most notably and perhaps powerfully in his directorial debut Mala Noche. However, when I heard about the plot for Restless I was a bit skeptical given that it was severely deterring from the usual themes of Van Sant's work in that the film concerns a heterosexual relationship. The film though is something captivating and magnificent and certainly representative of the cinematic nature expected from Van Sant. It is obviously inspired by The French New Wave as well as the work of Yasujiro Ozu, yet manages to contain a flair of Van Sant's honesty and approachability. Like so many other works released in 2011, Restless suffered from competing with excellent films, this review is here to help shine light on a film that will certainly be overlooked despite being one of the better composed films I have seen in quite some time.
Restless is a love story of sorts focusing on a young man named Enoch (Henry Hopper) as he lives his life rather indifferently, playing the part of a voyeuristic funeral crasher. Enoch's life is quite mundane and he only makes contact with his adoptive aunt Mabel (Jane Adams) who agreed to take care of him after the death of his parents. Aside from Mabel, Enoch's only other point of contact comes from his relationship with the ghost of a WW2 Kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase). Enoch seems destined to exist in a rather desultory life until he runs into a young woman at one of the funerals he crashes. The woman, dressed rather androgynous, introduces herself as Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska). Enoch realizes almost instantly that Annabel is far different from any girl he has previously met. It is clear quite quickly, however, that her difference stems heavily from her recent diagnosis with a cancer that has given her only a handful of months left to live. Enoch, enamored with Annabel, makes it his quest to assure that she enjoy her last days of life to their fullest and help her to experience love, even if it is only momentarily. This endeavor, however, is not void of problems. In the process, Enoch is forced to cope with his own emotional pain of losing his parents, as well as accepting his unhealthy fixation with death, as is evident in his relationship with a non-physical entity. Even Annabel is forced to make realizations about her passing, specifically the acknowledgement that those around her are suffering and that her own fears cannot allow her to ignore their pain. Ultimately, Annabel passes, and in this moment Enoch transcends his past leaving Hiroshi, in a heartwrenching scene poetically filmed, and helps Annabel prepare for death. In the films closing shots Enoch is shown preparing to speak at Annabel's funeral as a montage of memories flicker on the screen. Instead of speaking, Enoch simply smiles as Nico's "Fairest of the Seasons" plays through the credits. It is sweet, subtle and sentimental, without banging the viewer over the head.
I mentioned my initial concern coming into this film given that Van Sant was clearly stepping away from his traditional focus of homosexual characters. The film certainly is not concerned with promoting a homosexual couple, although it is good to note the films large inclusion of gay actors. With that being said, the film is quite preoccupied with focusing on unconventional notions of love and the view such love faces in a conservative society. This has led me to reconsider Van Sant as a director who promotes multifaceted notions of romance. While many of his films are about love between gay characters, it seems to be now, with the inclusion of Restless to his catalog, that Van Sant simply wants to focus on the fragility of love in the face of obstacles. These obstacles to Van Sant are not simply societal norms; they can be incredibly tangible thinks like sickness, or philosophical issues like love of country. Each are noted directly in Restless, whether it be Enoch's constant wrestling over committing to Annabel given her impending death or Hiroshi's longing for an unnamed girl who he failed to express his love to before dying at Pearl Harbor. Incidentally, the scene in which Hiroshi's letter is read is easily one of the most sobering moments of filmmaking I have witnessed in years. To Van Sant the tragedy of having your heartbroken is not as great as the one of never having been able to experience love. It helps explain the closing scene of the film in which Enoch simply smiles, because one can try to explain the grandiosity and simplicity of love through words and images, yet as the closing montage reminds viewers, it is always a personal experience and one that betters a person.
I am infatuated with this newest offering from Gus Van Sant, again it does not stack well next to some of the other movies released in 2011, yet it is still spectacular. I cannot stress enough that a copy is well worth buying, if only for the reading of Hiroshi's letter.