Indoors or out-, Portland, Oregon, has never looked so achingly, mysteriously and ethereally beautiful as it does in Portland’s pride Gus Van Sant’s deeply moving Restless, a fairy-taleish, brimmingly poetic boy-girl romance in and out of woods and graveyards at night, and infiltrated by restless ghosts and near-ghosts, and dreamily floating along the border between the sacred and the profane. It is a film about youth whom life has prematurely flung against the gravestone of mortal awareness. The boy, Enoch Brae (Enoch, as in Enoch Arden), lost both his parents in a road accident that also nearly claimed his life and, indeed, gave him three minutes of clinical death before his agonized revival. The girl, Annabel Cotton (Annabel, as in Annabel Lee), is herself terminally ill with brain cancer. In a moment of what he possibly mistakes for harsh truth, Enoch confronts Annabel with the “nothing” that three minutes’ experience has taught him death provides; he didn’t give death a chance, and now he is at risk of not giving life much of a chance, either. Until Annabel, Enoch’s closest friend is a ghost, possibly a figment of Enoch’s imagination: a former Second World War kamikaze pilot who, prior to his ultimate sacrifice, did not let the girl he loved know of his feelings for her. Hiroshi is “restless,” then, due to his failure to give to his heart speech in the form of a letter he wrote but did not send before taking off on his suicidal mission. He represents, if we take him to be Enoch’s self-projection, Enoch’s self-correction on this score, motivating Enoch (following initial resistance) to seize upon the opportunity for a profound relationship with Annabel despite the fact she may have only three—three again—months to live. There is nothing morbid about this film because Enoch’s embrace of Annabel’s death (again, after initial resistance) affirms his existence and expands his openness to life’s possibilities. At the end of the film, although we are sad over Annabel’s medical outcome and Enoch’s loss of her, we do not worry about Enoch’s future. This boy has finally come back in full from his own grave and, intimately acquainted with life’s mysteriousness and depth, is ready to face life. With astounding irony, Hiroshi’s reappearance after a period of testy absence encapsulates the metaphorical “new lease on life” that Enoch has courageously invented for himself.
For the first-time screenwriter, Chinese-American Jason Lew, however, the intent may have been otherwise; for him, one intuitively feels, Hiroshi is real, a ghost—not a figment of Enoch’s imagination. The difference hardly matters insofar as Enoch’s attendance at the memorial services for strangers, which gives him a kind of comfort (and something to do), either is part and parcel of his imagining Hiroshi or indicative of a romance with death that has genuinely attracted Hiroshi from the spirit-world. At the same time, though, this sense of a space between Lew’s script and Van Sant’s viewpoint generates an openness and an urgent sense of possibilities that fortify the film’s thematic richness and conviction. Indeed, the provision of two memorial services where Enoch and Annabel meet for the first and second time—in both cases, Annabel knew the deceased, associating her with the reality of death rather than Enoch’s romance with death to fill the void that the loss of his parents has created—equally resolves the ambiguity of Hiroshi in either direction. The divergence of views between script and direction might have split the film apart; but, in this case, it has made the film stronger—as Enoch himself becomes stronger and stronger.
Those who are unfamiliar with the well-publicized genesis of this film, itself something of a fairy tale-come-true, should google this up. In the meantime, some of Lew’s remarks are pertinent and interesting. Van Sant was his first choice to direct his script, because Van Sant “is incredible with two things that I think were essential for this movie: his portraits of youth are always, I feel, very authentic and moving; and he often deals with death and outsiders. He treats outsiders with respect, and that was something that was essential to me.” Why the kamikaze pilot? Lew: “I feel that in Japanese culture there is a real romanticism of death and that has always moved me. I think in Western culture, and in America especially, we have the attitude of ‘don’t talk about death and dying, it’s ugly.’ I was always moved by the Japanese mentality that there is beauty in death.”
There is certainly beauty in Van Sant’s film, to which Harris Savides contributed the most restrained and evocative color cinematography imaginable. Perhaps my favorite train here of Van Sant images involves overhead shots of Enoch’s outdoor chalk-outlines, first, around himself, then around Annabel as she lies next to him, and, finally, after Annabel’s death, the two outlines at night, abandoned by human forms, with a scattering of autumn leaves whispering across. The two leads are perfect: Mia Wasikowska, lovely and luminous as Annabel; Henry Hopper, sensitive and brilliant as Enoch. Those with memories of the actor’s father, Dennis, in Giant (George Stevens, 1956) may do a double-take; the elder Hopper, who died in 2010, is one more element haunting this remarkable film.
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