The “restless” described by the title of Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s latest nerve-racking drama could refer to a few characters at once — just as the film itself describes, with painstaking and sometimes painful detail, how human personalities are transient, multifarious structures that are impossible to fully grasp. The best we can do is cope.
Few filmmakers in recent cinema have tackled angst, anxiety and more damaging psychological conditions with the precision of Lafosse, whose 2004 debut was entitled Private Madness and whose ninth feature focuses on a French family of three suffering under the weight of a father’s mental illness. A tour-de-force opportunity for leads Damien Bonnard and Leïla Bekhti, this tense but extremely tender two-hander is the first film by Lafosse to play Cannes’ main competition, granting him the wider exposure he deserves.
Moving and meticulous.
An opening scene set on a Côte d’Azur beach establishes a tension-filled atmosphere, halfway between bliss and terror, which will pervade the entire movie. Damien (Bonnard), his partner Leïla (Bekhti) — the characters’ first names are the same as the actors’, eliminating barriers between performer and performance — and their son Amine (Gabriel Merz Chammah, grandson of Isabelle Huppert) are on a summer holiday, with an Instagram-worthy seaside cove all to themselves. When Damien goes out for a swim and doesn’t come back for a few hours, it looks like tragedy may have struck. And then he suddenly shows up, as if nothing’s wrong, although it’s becoming clear to us that something is not quite right about him.
The sense of unease escalates from a small wave into a tsunami when Damien is soon unable to either sleep or sit still, his nervous antics and bursts of energy becoming an oppressive force over the holiday. If he were running into the bathroom every five minutes to do lines of cocaine, his behavior would possibly be explainable. But his issues seem to be internal — although Lafosse doesn’t provide a succinct diagnosis until the last act.
After Damien is hospitalized, a narrative ellipsis takes us to the fall, or perhaps later, where we pick up the family in their cozy country abode. Damien resumes his work as a successful artist, painting abstracted figures and still-lives on large canvases, and Leïla runs her business restoring antique furniture. This is a couple that likes to use their hands, that appreciates arts and crafts and cheesy songs from the 80s, and Lafosse takes his time to depict a home filled with passion and warmth, both personally and professionally.
And yet Damien’s malady is never far off. In fact, it never really went away, despite a hefty Lithium prescription and Leïla’s nonstop monitoring of his behavior. We too are always watching Damien — both the actor and the character — looking for signs that he’s unraveling.
To Lafosse’s credit, his protagonist’s wavering mental states are so subtly drawn that it’s hard to tell if Damien is just enthusiastic about a new painting or a planned trip to the lake with his son, or in the process of losing it. At times the film ponders whether there’s actually a difference between the two. Or to quote Psycho: “We all go a little mad sometimes,” which is another way of saying that madness is a part of life.
But Damien’s madness, which is a clinical condition, is too much to deal with — especially for Leïla, who transforms over the course of the film from a loving partner to a woman forever on her guard, protecting Amine against his father’s uncontrollable mood swings. Her first and eventually only concern is to keep everyone in the household safe, and it takes such a toll that she builds up an impenetrable emotional forcefield around her.
The mental strain reaches a crescendo about halfway through the film, culminating in a driving sequence that’s fraught with suspense and brilliant in its simplicity: what should be an everyday scene of Damien taking Amine to school turns into something, indeed, out of Hitchcock. Lafosse administers the tension like a seasoned anesthetist who knows exactly what dose to deliver, keeping us on the edge of our seats but never resorting to cheap tricks or unlikely twists. It’s stressful and harrowing because it all feels so real.
Likewise, the actors never overdo it in roles offering plenty of opportunities for grandstanding, especially when Damien is off his meds and Leïla is doing damage control.
Bekhti, who had a breakout part in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and co-starred in Damien Chazelle’s The Eddy, has proved herself to be a lasting screen presence throughout the past decade. Her characters — and Leïla here is no exception — often exude a level of wisdom beyond their years, as if they’ve seen it all already and know they have to face the music yet again.
Bonnard was a discovery in Alain Guiraudie’s 2016 film Staying Vertical, then received a Cesar nomination for playing a cop with a good heart in Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables. In The Restless he provides his finest turn yet, channeling the artist’s wavering states with documentary-like clarity and an endless feeling of menace. Damien shuffles frantically around the house like a friendly ogre, as if at any moment his semi-massive frame could be transformed into a weapon — a weapon which, when it’s not aimed at his canvases or occasionally at Leïla, is mostly targeted inward.
By the time the family has been through several bouts of his extreme instability, the damage is done and may be irreparable. Lafosse and regular camerman Jean-François Hensgens shot the movie during periods of COVID lockdown, with characters wearing masks in certain scenes, and there’s a sense that the confinement speaks more generally to the predicament faced by Damien, Leïla and Amine as they try to stick close together despite a disease that’s tearing them apart. The Restless offers no vaccines or easy solutions for the sickness depicted at its core, but instead proposes that we learn to live with it for worse and perhaps for better.