It’s a strange old world, and we a strange old species in it, where a film as macabre and morbid as Love Eternal can somehow seem quite moving. But that’s the only word with which to describe Brendan Muldowney’s film, a tale of near-necrophilia that’s at once a romance in the classical vein and a clear contribution to Irish independent cinema’s increasingly transgressive tendencies. “I am a defective human being,” its protagonist muses at one point; it can be tempting to think the same of Muldowney as his movie hinges its hero on the relationship he maintains with a corpse he’s taken home after finding it hanging in the woods. But the movie’s brilliant coup, of course, is in luring us in: who among us, after all, isn’t defective?
For a film largely confined to a small handful of locations, it feels strangely epic; when a character talks of “the universe, conscious of itself” it’s not hard to appreciate the cosmic self-awareness at hand.
It’s a much better adaptation of the work of Japanese author Ken Ôishi than last year’s dire Apartment 1303, a terrific translation of the author’s interest in our relationship to death to a poignant study of our interaction with life. For a film largely confined to a small handful of locations, it feels strangely epic; when a character talks of “the universe, conscious of itself” it’s not hard to appreciate the cosmic self-awareness at hand. Muldowney has a way of making this small story seismic: there’s a certain restrained grandiosity to his direction that amplifies enormously; as his camera closes in on the swirling pattern of a shell in the sand, our imagination expands to an image of galaxies.
It is, that is to say, compellingly cinematic for all the inherent literariness of the piece. Muldowney’s script can do little to assuage the novelistic quality of first-person narration, certainly not with a character constantly cast opposite a cadaver. It’s the success equally of the direction and Robert de Hoog’s enigmatic lead performance to ingratiate the auditory exposition in a way that works well; his reticent tones carry an emotional heft to which the score is keen to contribute. Taken together they make for a sumptuous soundtrack, Bart Westerlaken’s notes underscoring the actor’s oft-unsure delivery with ironic expressivity. “I don’t know what the emotion referred to as loneliness means,” he whispers to us; the score swells to suggest otherwise.
It’s the success equally of the direction and Robert de Hoog’s enigmatic lead performance to ingratiate the auditory exposition in a way that works well; his reticent tones carry an emotional heft to which the score is keen to contribute.
If it’s as unconventional character study that Love Eternal excels, it’s in the comparable familiarity of its storytelling that it tends to falter. Ôishi’s chief conceit—a guidebook to life left to the sheltered son by his dearly-departed mother—isn’t without a certain creakiness, and Muldowney’s interpretation isn’t entirely successful in plastering the cracks. It’s not that image alone that might bring to mind The Cement Garden: both Ian McEwan’s novel and Andrew Birkin’s adaptation thereof took a tale of extreme arrested development as the gateway to a glimpse at the perverse peculiarities of humankind. It’s by no means the same story, but here the relative normalcy toward which the plot progresses is—albeit indicative of ulterior interest—alas a less interesting endpoint.
For something that starts so stringently strange to find its way to a final act that’s oddly unremarkable is as much a decision as it is a disappointment, and it’s perhaps a fitting finale to a film this alluringly ironic in approach. What business, after all, has a film so bleak in content in being so beautiful in form? Whether in the effulgent animation of its opening credits or the awesome autumnal tones of the pseudo-fantastical forest scenes, Love Eternal exudes in its every frame an uncanny idyll amidst the unpleasant ugliness of its head-on approach to death’s darkness. As much as it might misstep en route, Muldowney’s is a movie that arrives at an angle on love and death with the firmest of footing.
As much as it might misstep en route, Love Eternal arrives at an angle on love and death with the firmest of footing.