This sad and painful movie takes us round and round, circling the drain of despair but never quite going down. In narrative terms it never really develops any of its characters or relationships, yet its two utterly heartfelt lead performances make this a grimly authentic spectacle.
It comes from the Belgian director and co-writer Joachim Lafosse who has form as a dramatist of poisoned marriages with After Love from 2016 and before that Our Children from 2012, which like The Restless touches on the complicated role of prescription medication in the portfolio of personal unhappiness.
Damien (Damien Bonnard) is an artist and painter winning growing success who is married to Leïla (Leïla Bekhti), a restorer of antique furniture; they have a young son who adores his exuberant, boisterous, wonderfully impulsive dad. But he is also learning to be a little wary of Damien’s extravagantly bohemian and reckless mood swings. We see the family first on a beach holiday, where Damien takes the boy out on a motorboat, showing him how to steer, and then when land is almost out of sight, he dives into the ocean and cheerily tells his son to drive the boat home himself – which the bewildered kid manages to do. Later, Damien welcomes a gallerist and his young daughter to the villa he has rented and cheerfully throws the little girl, fully dressed, into the pool. The kids are thrilled with these antics, the grownups less so.
The truth is that Damien is bipolar and his wife has learned to recognise the beginnings of a manic episode, which invariably involves his behaving dangerously at the wheel of a car; it always ends in the psychiatric unit followed by a miserable, subdued return home with a promise to take his lithium, then a reluctance and outright refusal to take the meds, then a new fierce euphoric burst of artistic work. And so it goes on.
Where is it all leading? Lafosse is clearly concerned to avoid the cliches about madness being close to genius: we are not in the realms of Kirk Douglas cutting his ear off. Bonnard’s performance, though utterly committed and credibly disturbing, is not hammy. Bekhti is very good as someone relentlessly ground down by anxiety and resentment at being nursemaid to a parasite that might yet kill her and her child.
But I have to admit to finding something unrewardingly claustrophobic about the hellish, static situation in which the couple are trapped (and which reminded me a little of Claude Chabrol’s 1994 film L’Enfer about the unending nightmare of obsessive jealousy).
Damien’s agent is as concerned about him as his wife, and the artist’s latest manic episode, which involves Damien showing up crazily at his son’s school and demanding to take the class on a swimming trip, has a disastrous effect on a touring exhibition that they are trying to set up. (A more cynical gallerist, and a more cynical movie, might reflect on the fact that a public breakdown makes for a good artistic career move, and a sly tipoff to the press could be in order.)
This is a sombre, well-acted drama that searches its own wound with increasing acuity and anguish.
• The Restless screened on 16 July at the Cannes film festival.