“LOVE ETERNAL” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
In the opening scenes of LOVE ETERNAL, Ian Harding (a tender, troubled Robert de Hoog) spends his formative years among the dead. As a child, he plays with his father, running out of range of their walkie-talkies. When he returns, the man lays dead, seated outdoors. Later, midst puberty, Ian finds a popular girl from school hung by her own hand out in the forest. He visits the body endlessly, converses with it– forms a bond. Between these two significant moments in Ian’s life is a main titles sequence that elegantly strides through the countryside. Trees, caves, cliffsides and soil are as much of his foundation as the corpses he finds and socializes with. His conclusion and ours is obvious. Death is natural.
Following his affair with the cadaver in the forest, Ian shuts himself in. Ian’s mother tends to the school dropout’s needs, but only on a basic level. It’s only once she passes he receives any real nurturing, in the form of an extensive journal she’s left apologizing for her isolated ways and detailing instructions on cooking and how to live life. Again, Ian’s only true communication is with someone now dead. His solace in the deceased, while sad and surely a sign of mental illness (the conversations often become hallucinations of the dead responding), seems almost understandable.
The journal spurs a life change for Ian, to leave behind his hermit-like existence and attempt normal life. This leads to baby steps in socializing, i.e. cruising suicide chat rooms and bringing the ensuing suicides home for more close connection and yes, necrophilia—though its handled in as delicate manner as may be possible. That delicate atmosphere pervades LOVE ETERNAL. Writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s film is low key and melancholy, but always engaging thanks to a lovely, gliding camera. Even when dealing in genre tropes, like one of Ian’s dead friends appearing over his shoulder, it’s unpronounced. Muldowney is uninterested in jolts because Ian is unafraid of death. Thus, the film is.
Soon, Ian becomes fascinated/obsessed with (it’s kind of incredible the leeway with which you’ll ascribe the character) a grieving mother named Naomi (THE WOMAN’s Pollyanna McIntosh). Naomi’s child has died and Ian, from eavesdropping, can sense she’s close to ending her life. The boy takes his biggest step here and a bond forms that leads to LOVE ETERNAL’s best section, a subversion of romantic comedy cliché where the “inspiring young woman leads the morbid young man through life-affirming actions” such as diving off a cliff into the sea and dancing in a bar, oblivious to disapproving (read: lifeless) patrons. The scenes work on their own as a) McIntosh is fantastic as someone attempting their hardest to not be defeated, and b) you’ll want to believe Ian can make progress. Plus, the aforementioned dancing is done to Minor Threat (making it automatically great). These scenes transform however when they ultimately reveal these moments are fleeting, more adrenaline-fueling than life changing.
Of course, following Ian and Naomi’s dates, she’s still faking happiness instead of feeling it and Ian is still something of a timid, strange case. But those baby steps and slight changes are what counts, feeling more natural and thus more affecting. Ian’s first meaningful encounter with the non-deceased has left him with altered perspective. Death is natural, but so is life.