Director: Joachim Lafosse (Belgium, France, Luxembourg). Year of Release: 2021
A plush beach. A woman lies dozing on a sun lounger while a man and a boy take a speedboat out to sea. As they get quite a distance offshore, the man dives off the boat, telling the boy to drive it back to the beach: “you know how to”. The very young boy reunites with the woman, but we don’t see how he returns or what hardships he endured. It is quite some time before the man appears. His insouciant look makes you think that this is the sort of trick he pulls all the time.
Damien is an artist and is becoming increasingly erratic. He is having difficulty sleeping, and has taken to getting up in the middle of the night to repair his bicycle, never mind that his wife and child are trying to sleep. He has a show coming up, and promises his agent 40 new paintings – he should be able to knock them up in about forty days. It becomes increasingly clear that Damien is not just a wild artist but has serious mental problems.
Things come to a head when, after not sleeping for 2 days, Damien insists on driving his son Amine to school. It is a high speed white knuckle ride, containing many near misses with traffic coming in the opposite direction. His wife Leïla follows helplessly in her car. At the school, Damien acts aggressively towards the other kids, who are patently scared of this weird man.
Suddenly, Damien’s mood changes. He bursts into the local confectionery shop, blithely ignoring their protests that he is breaking their Covid rules by not wearing a mask. He takes a tray of pastries, massively overpaying them, and returns to Amine’s class, passing the confectionary round and suggesting that he takes the class to the seaside. Amine shrinks in his seat, trying to avoid the attention of any of his classmates.
There are so many ways in which Die Ruhelosen could have gone seriously wrong. The film contains in it an underlying feeling of entitlement – be it the huge house in which Damien and Leïla live, their separate cars or the expectations that Damien has that he and only he is above mask rules. It is a wonder that we have any positive feelings for Damien, as he seems to believe that his life is guided by artistic principles, and in his manic phase he does not expect our sympathy.
The film could also have easily been an uncritical portrayal of a “tortured genius artist”, suggesting that mental illness is a good thing as it fosters creativity. While it does leave the door open to a possible link between Damien’s artistic talent and his bipolar disorder, it is very clear about the cost. At times Damien is genuinely frightening, especially when he aggressively towers above Leïla, who is half his size.
The film avoids the temptation to suggest that all Damien has to do is take his medicine and everything will be all right. Maybe that was once a possibility, but his refusal to take his Lithium means that he now has a serious chemical imbalance. After a visit to hospital he is drugged up, clueless, barely able to move. Amine tries to revive his old “fun” father, the one who used to play with him, but now Damien finds it takes him 5 minutes just to get up and out of the bedroom.
But the real centre of the film is Leïla, who is not just shown as cowering in the corner, waiting for Damien’s next erratic move. Leïla obviously loves her husband – otherwise she’d be straight out of the door, taking Amine with her – but she finds it increasingly difficult to recognise the man she once knew. Whether manically bouncing around the house or drugged to the eyeballs, Damien is just a shadow of what he once was.
As Damien’s condition apparently improves, Leïla becomes increasingly isolated. Everyone – Damien’s father, and especially his agent who may also be motivated by a need for 10% of any new paintings, tell her that she must encourage her husband to return to normal. But she just doesn’t trust him alone with their son, especially when he keeps suggesting driving off to the coast.
Leïla is ground down by the need to remain vigilant 24 hours a day, at the expense of both her physical and mental health. When Damien tells her that he’ll look after Amine the next day, Leïla forgets and goes spare when told that her fragile son has been taken away. This leads to a confrontation between Leïla and Damien where you can’t really believe what either of them is saying. A pair which once was deeply in love is now unable to trust each other.
This is a film in which everyone is a victim of sorts but no-one is blameless. Both Damien and Leïla become overwhelmed by their personal situation, leading them to hurt family members by treating them thoughtlessly. Is this their fault? Well yes, in the sense that everyone has agency, but the film shows a series of characters struggling to retain their agency. Damien’s illness does not just damage him, but everyone around him, and there is no obvious way out.
Die Ruhelosen is not an easy film to watch. There is a significant number of scenes which are truly scary, but – unless most horror films – this scariness is not mediated through an unreal environment. This is the terror of everyday life – the fear that either you, or the person you most love, might become overcome by an illness which takes over them completely and turns them, and you, into something else.
Even the ending is compellingly ambiguous. We seem to me moving towards either justification or disproof of Leïla’s possibly paranoid distrust of her husband. But rather than just showing her to be either right or wrong, her fear is left to hang in the air. Maybe Damien can be trusted, maybe he can’t. All we know is that it’s in the nature of his illness that we, and Leïla, can never be possibly sure. This is even scarier than any pat ending and denies us any catharsis. Terrifying.