Irene Falvey reviews The Restless (Les intranquilles) which screened as part of the IFI French Film Festival.
The Restless (Les intranquilles) provides an intimate portrait of an unconventional family as they navigate one member’s bipolar episodes. Damien (Damien Bonnard) is a successful artist who suffers from mental health issues. The stunning opening scene is a momentary glimpse into this family when their dynamic is working and undisturbed by the chaos of Damien’s mood swings. We see Damien and his son Amine on a boat in the sparkling blue sea of the Mediterranean while Leïla lies on the beach relaxed. We get the first indication that Damien isn’t exactly a hyper protective father- he dives into the sea and tells Amine to steer the boat back by himself. Arguably an unwise move, but Amine does make it back to dry land to join Leïla. Damien does eventually resurface too, yet not before Leïla must cry out for him a couple of times. These brief five minutes of screen time foreshadow what’s to come; Leïla consumed by worry and Amine having to be more independent than he may want to be.
As Damien prepares for an upcoming art exhibition, it becomes clearer and clearer to his family and friends that Damien is becoming increasingly unstable as he descends into an episode of mania. The character does a superb performance of someone who can no longer focus on any one task, who has new ideas every two seconds and sleep has become merely a distant dream. At certain points in the film, we feel the fear of his potentially dangerous behaviour as though it is a thriller and not a drama we are watching, in particular the scene in which he insists on driving his son to school but is not in a fit state to drive; it is both a relief and a shock that he doesn’t crash. Rather than focus on the terror and disruption of the first ever wave of a bipolar episode, Damien’s condition in this film presents itself much more as an unwelcome but familiar ghost. The couple deal with the return of this ghost differently. Damien throws himself into his art and insists that he is fine and should be trusted, Leïla is fatigued by the worry she has felt before and struggles to cope with the reality that these episodes may consume her entire life. While the build-up of this bipolar episode is intense; the film never leans into any kind of over exaggeration or melodrama, a factor that is very important in terms of providing an accurate portrayal of a condition many suffer from.
A minor but interesting point to be noted about this film is its depiction of life during Covid. While Covid is definitely not a key feature of the film, it lurks there in the background like it is bound to in any recently released film. In one scene when Damien is at his most out of control, he storms into a bakery without a mask, grabs lots of cupcakes with his unsanitized hands and breathes heavily on purpose on another customer. It’s a clever and nerve wrecking exploration of our new fears while also demonstrating just how deep into this episode Damien has gotten if he is able to behave in this socially abhorrent way.
While of course Damien’s experience of being bipolar is the focus of this film; the other main aspect is how this condition affects his relationships. Leïla is on edge as she must be a kind of double mother, caring for both Damien and Amine full time. While her love and steeliness are evident, she is clearly human and can’t help but declare her anguish over never being thought about/looked after anymore. Amine is forced to be more mature than he may truly wish to be, his affection towards his father is heart melting and he also shows his ability to be responsible beyond his years by measuring out his father’s medication upon his arrival back from the psychiatric ward. Despite the strength he shows he still acts like a kid; he swears at his mother and goes sailing with his not fully recovered father despite the danger of this. Leïla can take care of everyone, but she needs to be taken care of too. Amine can understand some adult realities but is nonetheless a child.
The strength of this film lies in its ability to not divide everything about a mental health issue into black and white. Damien is suffering but he is also inspired. Leïla and Amine’s relationships with Damien are also realistic reactions to how people may react when a loved one is suffering; you want to do everything you can, but everyone has a limit. This film allows us to get a full glimpse into the world of a family unit navigating the challenges and realities of living with someone with a mental health condition, delivered through three outstanding performances. Overall, the film examines the emotional effects of a mental health episode, rather than focusing on a solution to treat it and then forget about it; accepting that the ghost could return and learning to live with that.
The IFI French Film Festival ran 17-28 November 2021.