I saw Irish writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal at last year’s Sydney Film Festival and intended to blog about it months ago. But while another SFF is almost upon us, this film is so unusual I don’t want pass up the opportunity to talk about it here, if a little belatedly.
Love Eternal is a difficult film to pin down: one that raises more questions than it answers. It revolves around the enigmatic Ian (Robert de Hoog), a young man who feels himself to be an imposter in human skin. This intrinsic discomfort and dislocation from humanity draws Ian to online suicide groups whose members offer support and encouragement in the meticulous planning of each others’ deaths. When the day comes for Ian to enact his own suicide, however, his plans are thwarted. Driving into the local forest, he happens upon a group of people doing exactly the same thing – more effectively – in a van nearby.
Ian is transfixed by one of the participants, a teenage girl, and takes her body back to his house, where he ‘cares’ for it with awkward reverence. Any future suicide plans are put on the back burner. It’s pertinent to note here that Love Eternal is based on a Japanese novel, “In Love With the Dead,” by Kei Oishi, something that, given the differing culture around suicide in Japan, perhaps brings a bit of context to Love Eternal‘s communal suicide scene, which doesn’t seem to quite belong in this European setting, instead suggesting Mount Fuji’s infamous ‘Suicide Forest.’ Ian’s discovery of necrophilia is certainly confronting, but the film is careful not to play it for grossness and shock value. While Ian is now drawn to the dead, finding a semblance of intimacy with his lifeless ‘companions,’ we sense he finds this deeply troubling on some level – and not just because they ‘leave’ him by decomposing.
Somewhat dissonantly, considering the subject matter, Love Eternal is a superficially beautiful film, with a leaning towards the picturesque that sometimes resembles a tourism advert. Ian, who lives in a white mansion overlooking the sea, so secluded we never even glimpse neighbours, makes forays down to the water, walking along a promenade where the attractively prosperous enjoy their leisure time. Shot in lush Cork and elegant Luxembourg, the film consciously avoids attaching its events to any real place. This lack of belonging to anywhere lends the scenario a symbolic or mythic quality that reminds me of Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013), another film about an outsider who cannot relate to humanity.
In both Love Eternal and Stoker, the protagonist forms a pivotal relationship that leads to a personal epiphany and change of direction. Interestingly, given the initial similarities between protagonists, these epiphanies are markedly different. While Stoker‘s heroine embraces her true, dark nature, Ian’s revelation is redemptive. This humanistic conclusion is a little surprising given the darkness of preceding events. Did he really just need a friend in order to step back from death? We can never know the exact nature of Ian’s profound alienation, but in this sensitive examination of one of humankind’s more questionable fetishes, that’s not really a flaw.