Barry Monahan
University College Cork

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Love Eternal (Brendan Muldowney 2013)
94 mins. Ireland

T. S. Eliot considered Hamlet “an artistic failure”, but he was clear in emphasising that it was Shakespeare’s play, and not his protagonist, that was the “primary problem” (Eliot 1945: 98).
He located his aesthetic dissatisfaction in the fact that the play alluded to much more emotional content than it was capable of rendering formally. He noted in his chapter “Hamlet and his Problems” from The Sacred Wood (first published in 1920) that “Hamlet … is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art” (Eliot 1945: 100). The outward manifestation of the eponymous character’s interior reflection and sentiments, best achieved by the concrete “objective correlative”, simply cannot occur because they envelope and exceed the possibility of any stylistic rendering. Hamlet’s existential crisis and the character’s immobilising procrastination in what Sartre would later call “bad faith” (Sartre 1996: 47-50), are ultimately embedded in the question over his suicide. Indeed, his inability to act is doubly manifest in not only his musings on not being, but also in his failure to carry out the suicidal act. The questions of nothingness, becoming nothing, and the afterlife, are equally concerns of the protagonist of Brendan Muldowney’s second feature length film Love Eternal, but here there is no problem with objective correlation, as the mise-en-scène and musical score (by Dutch composer Bart Westerlaken) become rich externalisations of that character’s emotional and intellectual states.

The film is an adaptation of the Japanese novel In Love With The Dead, by the acclaimed author Kei Oishi. It tells the story of Ian (Robert de Hoog), a young man who having had a number of encounters with death – firstly that of his father when he was a boy, then the discovery of the body of a girl who has hanged herself in the woods, and then the passing of his mother – begins to ask himself fundamental questions about his existence and the spirit world. Concluding on his feelings of social detachment and ostracisation, that he is an unusual being and not really human, he considers and attempts his own suicide in an isolated wooded area. Fatefully, he is interrupted by the arrival of a van load of people who have entered into their own suicide pact. His morbid fascination is deepened when, having watched them pipe carbon monoxide into the vehicle, he takes the corpse of one of the victims back to his home, where he interacts with it as if still alive. Although he ultimately inters the young girl’s body, his enthrallment at the ubiquitous nature of death drives him to seek out others who are hoping to end their lives. His final emancipation from the allure of bereavement is manifest when he digs up two bodies that he has buried in his garden, and “liberates” them by leading the police to them so that they can undergo proper autopsy and burial. We are left with a sense of his liberation from the same earlier obsession and the existential crisis suffered by Shakespeare’s protagonist.

Although the film is concerned with the juxtaposition of the natural world and the supernatural/spiritual realm, and Muldowney makes it clear that the requirement to choose one over the other is a central concern for Ian as he reflects upon the sublime beauty of one and the terror of the other, this is not belaboured. Nonetheless, the splendour of nature is omniscient, persistent and central to the aesthetic of the film with gentle connections between the two realms. The opening and credit sequences establish this as they invite us to reflect upon their visual abstractions and the implication that not all of what human existence comprises can be concretely manifest or comprehended. In one flashback, Ian imagines that the hanged girl whom he has found is talking to him about the beauty of the things in nature. This idea is literalised when a light snowfall follows the suicide of the group in the van, and later in a slow tracking shot that brings into the frame a mound of blossoming flowers as Ian attempts his second suicide. These juxtapositions serve as perfect ‘objective correlatives’ for both his choice between, and understanding of, the world he inhabits and the non-physical one for which he holds such affection. At the heart of the film then is a tortured ontological question that places humanity on the fine line between meaning and beauty. The design of the film – both visually and acoustically – is richly informed by the tentative nature of this critical question.

Ian’s struggle to grasp a meaning of existence or non-existence is also manifest in the frequent imbrication of moments of random absurdity with symmetrical rationality. The interiors inhabited by the characters are clinically regular and aesthetically balanced and framed, while the natural settings are randomly patterned and irregularly configured (even when visually split in two linearly by roads or the pier boardwalk). Following his contemplation of the cosmos, Ian struggles to make sense of its incoherence by drawing an impressionistic map of it on his bedroom wall over several days, and after he bathes his second stolen corpse a subtle tracking shot picks up a small metallic pendulum in the shape of a section of the solar system, perfectly rocking to its own regular rhythm. This linking of the haphazard and the symmetrical is echoed in the film’s soundtrack throughout, but it is most evident in one particular sequence in which he brings Tina’s body back to his house. A frenetic asynchronous and atonal section of the score accompanies his confused actions as he moves the corpse around, but as his movements settle to a more calm stability so too does the music become more coherently rhythmic, dramatically settling into an exaggerated clockwork beat – one actually designed to sound like a ticking clock – before it fades into complete silence. In this sequence, the extent to which Ian’s presented pathology can be calmed by his proximity to death is formally rendered in the composition of the score, as it moves from crazed atonality to a solid rhythmic stability. In a similar but reversed way, the music has already been used to lure us into the mental state of the protagonist from the earlier moments of Ian’s introduction: notwithstanding a comfortable visual stillness, the soundtrack offers a more disturbing undertone and darker edge to his mindset. What is interesting about Westerlaken’s score in this regard is that it communicates the complexities of Ian’s existential outlook with a refined subtlety: nothing like the extreme and demented saxophone interludes used to express the protagonists’ sociopathologies in the 1997 films The Butcher Boy by Neil Jordan or David Lynch’s Lost Highway (scored by Elliot Goldenthal and Angelo Badalamenti respectively).

While Hamlet is an active protagonist, his procrastination and indecision serve to introduce inactivity so that they impede the forward development of the plot of the drama. In Muldowney’s film, Ian’s inaction – or, rather his desire to contemplate the relationship between realms of active being and inactive non-being – is of thematic concern. It is the actions of others – not his own procrastination – that see him twice abandon his plans to kill himself. This sense of his dramatic immobility is underlined for us by a constant alignment with his point of view, and a recurring framing of his looking at and observing others (often, but not uniquely, through his telescope). In one scene, as he sits with Naomi watching passers-by, they narrate stories to each other of the unknown individuals’ lives that they imagine could exist: in failing to grasp his own narrative position in the universe, the best Ian can do is to invent narratives for others.

The ultimate, and perhaps most effective, objective correlative in the film is his walkie-talkie. It represents Ian’s fascination with the afterlife and forms a connection between his current life and the spirit world. It appears at three significance moments. We see it for the first time in the opening sequence when, as a young boy, Ian runs through what seems to be a family orchard, talking with his “papa” who is sitting in a deck chair elsewhere in the garden. Only moments into this “hide-and-seek” game, with Ian still calling to his father through the device, the old man passes away, and the film establishes the connection between the world of the living and the dead via the two-way radio. Later, an older Ian tells of how he buried one of the handsets in the coffin with his father and spent nights under his bed sheets with the receiver, hoping to hear sounds from the otherworld. The final appearance of the walkie-talkie occurs at a moment when we are led to believe that Ian has had a personal epiphany: not so much in discovery of some supernatural secret or enigma that has obsessed him from the age of six, but because – through his association with the female characters who have come into, and then left, his life – he has become better-able to leave his obsession behind and free the corpses for proper interment. In a quiet and gently-paced scene, one night he visits the cemetery and the grave where his parents are buried, and pushes the remaining walkie-talkie into the soil. His achievement is peace with the notion established at the beginning of the film when his desire to connect with the voices of the otherworld is stated for us despite the reality that, within the logic of the film’s world, we can never ultimately find that place: “Somewhere, there are no human sounds to be heard.”

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. 1945 (1921). The Sacred Wood, London: Methuen & Co.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1996 (1943). Being and Nothingness, London: Routledge.