A mercurial 18-year-old girl gradually reaches detente in the chilly relationship with her WWII-vet grandfather in Laurent Perreau’s erratic but finely acted debut, “Restless.” More noteworthy than anything in the film’s treatment of generational alienation and adolescent willfulness is the exhibition of French cinema’s durable acting tradition, carried aloft with verve by promising young Pauline Etienne and the 83-year-old master Michel Piccoli, in one of his more interesting roles of late. Theatrical prospects look best in Euro territories for a film that triggers respect but not excitement.
Most frustrating about “Restless” is how its meticulously staged and cut opening sequence, redolent with mystery, promises a more engaging film than what follows. Claire (Etienne) appears to be breaking into a sprawling manor house, then hides under the bed from the house’s elderly occupant, Maurice (Piccoli). Curiously, she snatches an envelope from a table before leaving.
This strange behavior reveals an ingrained pattern with Claire, who seems uncomfortable with everything and everyone — unwilling to finish school and unsure whether she should pursue a spot on the school’s swim team, coached by Rafael (Eric Caracava). She accidentally falls into a vaguely romantic dalliance with casino security man Thomas (Clement Roussier), an act that seems to define Claire as a young woman lacking an inner compass.
Puttering around his old place, Maurice is all too aware that Claire intends to keep her distance; he has a single friend in hooker Madeleine (Johanna ter Steege), who gives both a bit of sexual relief and a shoulder to lean on. Perreau adopts a rather academic approach to both central characters, however, dutifully giving them equal screen time and alternating sequences to let the viewer in on their private lives. Still, certain character developments don’t feel sufficiently foreshadowed or observed.
Claire’s sheer flightiness and instability will test audience patience — perhaps a testimony to the film’s observance of adolescence run amok — but eventually, the pic’s latter half develops greater narrative texture as Maurice’s WWII past comes to the fore. Maurice’s actual war activities involve secrets that “Restless” wisely doesn’t fully explain. This and a domestic accident that sends Maurice to the hospital serve to finally bring grandfather and granddaughter together in a rather emotionless exchange.
The film’s reluctance to plumb the sources of the testy relationship doesn’t stop Piccoli and Etienne from filling in the gaps with performances of range and honesty. The visible irony is that of two actors, at nearly the opposite poles of their careers, exploring feelings the film itself doesn’t express, as if Perreau were willing to leave this job entirely in their hands. Support (including the impressive Roussier in a tricky role) is strong, with the bonus of brief appearances by vets Aurore Clement and Claude Duneton.
Perreau’s outstanding collaborator is rising Gallic cinematographer Celine Bozon, capping a great year (including “The Wolberg Family” and “Regrets”) with an ambitious lighting design that suits both the manor house’s Gothic qualities and the cooler look of swimming pools and monitor-filled casinos. Music contributions by Gregoire Hetzel, Julien Gester and Olivier Gonord include effectively underscored solo guitar and orchestral cues.