Sydney Film Festival Review: Love Eternal (Ireland, 2014)

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Director Brendan Muldowney has crafted something both beguiling and disturbing with film Love Eternal; he has done so in a way that adds a layer of beauty on top of something which would unnerve a lot of viewers. Muldowney loosely based this film on the novel Loving the Dead by Japanese author Kei Oishi, who also wrote Ju-On, on which The Grudge was built. His sense of taking something which pairs ritualistic suicide with perturbed developmental psychology and coating it with uniquely European aesthetics is something which makes this film very hard to forget.

The film makes incredible use of its scenery, flooding light onto the camera, venturing around the woods and the film’s insular setting, and painting the world with a highly spirited sense of life. But the plot tells a very different story; there’s an immediately macabre air surrounding Ian Harding (Robert de Hoog) when he first pops up on our screens, outlined with a quick glimpse into his past by showing the deaths of both of his parents – whose lifeless bodies he discovered – during respective formative periods in his life. This is a man who has irrevocably been shaken by death, constantly falling into circumstances which would have him witness many more dead bodies in his lifetime. It leaves little wonder then, that Harding is a highly withdrawn, sickly individual who hasn’t left his bedroom for 10 years. His mind has atrophied and the ability to express basic human emotions is lost somewhere in his damaged brain.

Harding’s obsession with death begins to unfold with his own attempted suicide, as he travels into the woods to gas himself in his own car. A darkly comical situation ensues where a family arrive to do the exact same thing, right next to his car; one can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, but there’s something deeply unsettling here, more so when Harding discovers his curiosity about the dead and decomposition – a curiosity which saves his own life. After the family (or suicide pact group) die by suicide, Harding takes the lifeless body of one of them – a teenage girl – back to his house. It’s at this point that there is a small turn of hope towards a Weekend at Bernies remake, but alas Harding does something quite dark, but not as dark as one would think. Having not talked to anyone for years, Harding beings to open up – slightly – to this girl before he realises that he must bury her in his backyard. And so starts Harding’s obsessive ritual; he adores dead bodies – all female – and uses them to satisfy his need for company, yet he never goes down the road of necrophilia. He needs this bodies to watch over him and spend time with him, something he could never do with live people for the past 10 years.

The way this film teeters on the idea of necrophilia but restrains itself and treats Harding with a delicate touch, reels us in rather than pushes us away, rousing our infinite intrigue into Harding’s psychology but never fully satisfying it. Here lies the problem with Love Eternal, the story creates such a need to delve deeper into the mind of this disturbed young man, but aside from cliche soliloquies about a sense of isolation, we aren’t privy to the inner-workings of Ian Harding’s mind. Because of this, Love Eternal feels like a missed opportunity.

Harding’s obsession leads him to trawl suicide pact forums and begin a twisted form of online dating, adding a new layer to the film when he meets an up-beat young woman who is resolute in dying by suicide; Ian pretends to go with the idea until he backs out at the last minute and takes her body home, elevating his ritual to involve bathing this woman’s corpse. His monologue to her, deluding himself to believe he is having a two-way conversation about decomposition, is a strangely beautiful and tragic scene where we, as viewers, hope that this dedication takes away his suicidal inclinations, but at the same time, feel disgusted that he is entertaining these desires and progressing with them.

Ian wants the warmth from his dead companions that he has lacked all of his life, and he becomes too myopic to be able to seek that from live people, until he meets the beautiful Naomi (Pollyana McIntosh) and explores her reasons for wanting to die. The film picks up dramatically with the chemistry between Ian and Naomi driving the second half. Naomi’s death wish is caused by the bereavement of her son, and yet through Ian she is able to anchor herself in the present, even playing the role as a sort-of teacher to Harding, who remains very much withdrawn until Naomi gets through to him.

Yet again, we aren’t exploring Harding’s mind as much as we should here, rather staying on the surface and guessing whether his desire to die remains as he continues to grow outwards into his environment. There’s a sense of acceptance and even contentment when things inevitably regress, and while Love Eternal ends on a relatively positive note, the tragedy remains that Ian Harding has little concept of life and death; something which will haunt you, and make you want to check back in with this compelling character, long after the credits are done rolling.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time 94 minutes

Love Eternal screened as part of the 61st Sydney Film Festival