There is a moment of real tension right at the beginning of Joachim Lafosses “The Restless” this is worth your attention. Damien (Damien Bonnard), swims with his son Amine (Gabriel Merz Chammah, the grandson of Isabelle Huppert, no less) from a boat on the rocky French coast. They are on their way back to shore when Damien suddenly stops the boat and jumps back into the water. He tells Amine, who cannot be older than 10 years, to bring the motorboat ashore because he will swim there alone. Damien’s wife Leïla is lying on the beach (Leïla Bekhti). She is immediately concerned when Amine arrives alone on the boat. As the sun sets more and more from the sky, it begins to pace up and down the beach, scanning the ocean horizon for her husband. When he is finally spotted coming out of the water, her body exhales in an instant sense of relief. As we’ll soon discover, this type of dangerous drama surrounding Damien is nothing new.
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As a world premiere in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2021, “The Restless” records how this small family copes with Damien’s increasingly unpredictable bipolar symptoms. As a reasonably successful modern artist, he is enraptured with his work, often creates too much for his gallery owner’s taste, and creates a hyperactive state of which he never seems to be aware. When his symptoms are under control, he is a loving father and husband who Leïla can win over with euphoric charm. These moments become more and more fleeting, because the “episodes”, as Leïla describes them, become more and more two-day binge eating, in which Damien does not sleep or takes his medication. And as you’d expect, Leïla, an ancient restorer trying to support her family, has reached a breaking point.
Mostly limited to the family’s lovely summer home, Lafosse and cameraman Jean-François Hensgens work together to make the process as visually appealing as possible. That’s a necessity for a scenario that just feels all too familiar. And it goes without saying that Damien, as a painter, goes a little too much in the direction of real cliché in this state (are there stories of incredible visual artists who are not burdened by tragedy or suffering?). The plot is so predictable, in fact, that despite Lafosse’s skill in creating a scene, the narrative simply leaves a lot to be desired. The actors, on the other hand, get the most attention because they just have to.
Bonnard, best known for his role in Ladj Lys “Les Miserables” gives a performance so energetic and flammable that it almost stifles the audience’s attention. This is not an easy task, but something is definitely missing. Perhaps it’s a lack of clarity provided by the six, yes, six screenwriters who are credited with the script (which is more common with studio blockbusters). And yet, despite his best efforts, Damien is the character you least understand when it comes down to it. The film’s real revelation is Bekhti, who unwraps Leïla’s growing frustration and heartache like a flower in bloom. She is the audience’s window to a family that simply can no longer function.
Historically, “The Restless” is one of the first films (but not the only one in Cannes) to work the pandemic into the plot in an essentially sober way. There is a moment when a runaway Damien goes into a bakery without a mask and causes drama, but the lack of protection is secondary to his embarrassing actions in this small seaside town. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the new mask mandates announced in France during the festival and overseas, this aspect of history is not going to appear out of date anytime soon. [C+/B-]