DIR/WRI: Brendan Muldowney • PRO: Conor Barry, Manami Fukawa • DOP: Tom Comerford • ED: Mairead McIvor • DES: Owen Power • MUS: Bart Westerlaken • CAST: Robert de Hoog, Naomi Clarke, Tina Shaw, Cathy Malone
Asperger Syndrome is a fun plot device. From Hannibal‘s forensic genius Will Graham to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s computer genius Lisbeth Salander, it’s become shorthand for cinema’s “troubled genius” characters. High IQ mixed with asocial personalities make for exciting drama. Rarely, though, is the Syndrome explored outside of high octane scenarios. Rarely do we see a portrayal of just a lonely young person who struggles to connect with others.
So here we are. Love Eternal’s Ian Harding is on the spectrum. Only it’s not stated. Perhaps it’s not even intentional. The only explicit reference is a shell Ian picks up from the beach; a shell which is distinctly reminiscent of the Fibonacci numbers – a design frequently referenced with regard to autism. Ian is obsessed with death, and has been ever since witnessing his father’s at the age of six. This has produced in him an odd intimacy with corpses, and one gets the impression that he is a sort of merchant of death. Nobody gets closer to the dead than Ian. It’s a story of a lonely man who seeks out others with whom to share a suicide. If he’s alone in life, he reasons, he might as well enjoy a bit of company before his death.
Adapted from Kei Oishi’s novel In Love With the Dead, Brendan Muldowney’s film is another in a line of Irish films to reject the Priest+Field narrative ordinarily so prevalent in Irish cinema. The Scandi-Noir aesthetic recalls Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did and, although this film has lower production values (which are in some places obvious), its depth and intensity of focus make it a flawed but energetic effort. There are many things I could criticise in this film, but its ingenuity and freshness is something that must be applauded.
Ian spends his youth browsing suicide websites, and I imagine this is common practice for real world teenagers. Its deftness at dealing with mental health issues marks it out from any sensationalist “message films”. Away from the hustle and partying of the Skins teenagers, here’s a character people on the spectrum can relate to. Ian sits by himself and chats to his online friends for “ten years”. When he begins searching for a partner in suicide, he begins to develop real world relationships.
I had one reservation about the narrative. The moments during which Ian comes alive are always the moments when he is dancing, or singing, or performing a Neurotypical (non-Aspergic) activity. This is when he is happy. But this narrative device perpetuates the idea that Ian is, as he states, defective, and that in order to be happy he has to become more Neurotypical; more normal. Anyone with Asperger’s will tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. This process is called “mainstreaming”. It’s the idea that rather than accept difference we must strain it out and transform people like Ian into “normal” people in order for them to be happy. I think all this does is help “normal” people to become more comfortable with those who are different, rather than affecting those with Asperger’s in any positive way.
It’s nice to see a low-budget film that doesn’t make a show of its low-budget. There’s an element in Irish cinema that wants to turn everything into Republic of Telly, so it’s good to see some genuine artistic endeavour here. Although its production values can ocasionally be distracting, the story plays out with such earnestness that one forgives it its flaws. The fact that it was adapted from a Japanese novel also brings hope, and perhaps coincides with Anglophonic consumers’ growing taste for translated fiction.
This is one of those films that isn’t for everybody. But for those who like the sound of what I’ve described above, it’s really worth watching. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert: I’m tired of films that are for everybody, which really means they’re for nobody. This film is for me, and for me it works very well indeed.
18 (See IFCO for details)
Love Eternal is released on 4th July 2014