No one utters the word “bipolar” until practically the end of Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s “The Restless,” but you can sense that’s what the character of Damien is dealing with from the opening scene, when a father-son day on the sea takes a startling turn. After steering a rented boat a certain distance off shore, the ever-impulsive Damien (an astonishing, exhausting performance from Damien Bonnard) spontaneously dives overboard, leaving his boy Amine (Gabriel Merz Chammah) alone at the helm. “I’m swimming back, you take the boat,” he says, leaving the boy with no other choice.
“The Restless” presents this startling rift in parental responsibility from the son’s point of view, suggesting that the episode — the kind of judgment lapse that might qualify as “fun-loving” in an American man-child comedy, but feels genuinely alarming here — almost certainly has its origins in Lafosse’s own upbringing. Like that real-world Laurel and Hardy episode when Mom called the paramedics, who had to chase Dad around the house, or the time where Dad showed up at school and tried to hand out cupcakes to the entire class, children don’t forget such incidents. But neither do they understand them, limited as their perspective of mental health might be at that age. Who’s to say what a “normal” dad is like when the only one you know is your own?
Lafosse’s ninth feature — and the first to land the deserving “Our Children” helmer an overdue competition slot at Cannes — was inspired by his father, a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder. In keeping with the most personal of his previous films, “Private Lessons” and “After Love,” it’s not one of those gross filmmaking-as-therapy grudge sessions, but a wrenchingly fair-minded look at complicated family dynamics.
Though he clearly empathizes with young Amine, Lafosse shows full-blown appreciation for Damien’s wife Leïla (Leïla Bekhti), who must play mother to her husband as well as her son. Compelling as the moment-by-moment fate of this family may be, what grips us most is watching Bonnard and Bekhti become these two characters — twin planets, each possessing a magnetic-to-behold sense of gravity, who orbit harmoniously at times, and at others smash violently into one another.
Over the course of two hours, “The Restless” represents Damien in all his states: up, down, but mostly sideways, barreling unpredictably through life, a rogue electron (to borrow the metaphor of another 2021 Cannes contender, “Annette”) who could go nuclear at any moment. Unmanageable though it may be, such wild energy seems essential to this tortured artist’s creativity. When Damien finds himself under its influence, he paints, translating the world into big, brilliant canvases, vaguely Van Gogh-like in their capacity to turn an empty room or seemingly benign portrait into something pulsing and radioactive.
Damien’s work has much the same power, and it can be breathtaking to watch Bonnard go at it. He’s not merely pantomiming the act of creation, the way actors so often do (with the camera coyly hiding behind the canvas), but participating in it, as DP Jean-François Hensgens pushes deep into his personal space with the intimacy of an unsimulated art-house sex scene. Damien’s studio and style were both modeled after Belgian visual artist Piet Raemdonck, with whom Bonnard collaborated to create several large tableaux — a sign of the actor’s commitment, as well as his unique background: Bonnard actually studied fine arts during an earlier chapter of his life, which convinced Lafosse to alter his original intention of making Damien a photographer so that the role might benefit from such useful “preparation.”
More stunning still is the way Bonnard inhabits the supernova intensity of the character’s mood disorder. Early on, Damien’s restlessness makes it virtually impossible for him to sleep, so he gets up in the middle of the night and tinkers in the garage. When Damien’s art dealer (Alexandre Gavras) stops by to check in on his progress, the wound-up painter ambitiously proposes to create a new canvas every day — a recipe for burnout, if ever there was one.
No one is more understanding of Damien’s condition than Leïla, but even her love has its limits, and the tragedy of “The Restless” comes in watching her fight to regain some shred of her own identity when confronted with the rapidly collapsing supernova of her husband’s unmedicated “high.” As the movie advances, told through a series of deeply painful vignettes, it falls to Leïla to rein in Damien’s undeniably destructive behavior, risking a form of self-immolation in the process. It’s no easy to task to play near-total emotional exhaustion without pulling audiences into the black hole that threatens to consume such character, but Bekhti finds the pinpoint of light at the end of that tunnel and powers us toward it through sheer force of will. Bonnard may be the movie’s showboat, but she’s its anchor — no surprise, considering the sheer number of unfathomably rich roles for women Lafosse’s filmography has yielded so far (see also “Private Property” and “Our Children”).
Once her husband is back on lithium, his whirlwind work ethic inevitably crashes to a state of near-catatonia, and the painting ceases almost entirely. Obviously, one needn’t be crazy (or “neurodivergent,” to use a more acceptable term) to achieve artistic genius, but there’s little denying that some developmental disorders offer certain advantages as well. This irony isn’t lost on Lafosse, who weighs Damien’s dual obligations — to his family and to his art — with full awareness that there’s no sustainable way for the two to coexist. At least, not yet, though the director’s sensitivity to such issues suggests how far our comprehension has progressed since, say, the movie “Lust for Life” used such a euphemistic title to describe it.