PRODUCER Conor Barry and director Brendan Muldowney are one of the most fruitful and fearless teams in Irish film. Since their debut, the 2000 film, The Church of Acceptance, which was selected for the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the pair made a number of award-winning shorts, before their feature debut, Savage, in 2010.
Their latest feature, Love Eternal, is a mature portrayal of a death-obsessed loner, but is ultimately uplifting. Adapted from the Japanese novel, In Love with the Dead, by acclaimed author Kei Oishi — an Oishi novel was the source material for the film, The Grudge — Love Eternal follows Ian, an only child whose father dies while they are playing together in their garden.
His fixation on death, or the dead, consumes him when he happens upon the body of a seemingly popular schoolgirl hanging in a nearby woods. This forces him into self-imposed exile in his bedroom.
Only with the death of his mother does he venture out; he is a young man left to fend for himself. Though she was emotionally remote, his mother leaves him a bulging, handwritten notebook full of practical and sage advice. His decision to end his life puts him in contact with other lonely and desperate individuals on online suicide chatrooms.
It is a film that, Barry says, deals with “the big-letter stuff,” with taboo topics, such as suicide and necrophilia, hovering at the margins.
“But what emerged, very swiftly, was that there was a real, non-exploitative heart to the whole story, and in such an environment to find that was very unusual. And I think that definitely pricked Brendan’s interest,” says Barry.
“I think what it showed to Brendan is that anybody who was serious about looking at it saw that it did have that non-exploitative heart, and about exploring the shifting sands, or the moral greyness, out there.”
Since the pair met on a degree course at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design, or the National Film School, as it’s called now, Barry became aware of qualities in Muldowney that make him adept at dealing with these complexities.
“I thought the material he was writing, and even his short film, The Church of Acceptance, showed someone who wasn’t afraid to kind of go into the territory of greyness.
“And I think Brendan’s a very moral person and that gives him a kind of real bravery, then, when he’s able to kind of investigate stories or characters that maybe a lot of people might shy away from, or people might deem to be too transgressive,” he says.
Savage, a portrait of vulnerability, rage and revenge, showed these morally complex qualities, and Love Eternal has them in excess.
Muldowney handles them with a breathtaking confidence.
Yet it’s rare to find a film that delights so much in wrong-footing its audience, deftly sidestepping the more lurid or sensationalist avenues that could threaten to emerge.
Playing Ian is Dutch actor, Robert de Hoog, an International Emmy nominee for the Jewish skinhead-drama, Skin.
An ethereal presence, De Hoog exists as a ghostly, disembodied figure for the first third of the film, as we hear him only in voiceover. The film shifts when he encounters Naomi, a grieving mother who has just lost her six-year-old son.
Played by the statuesque and raven-like Polly McIntosh, Naomi begins to form an unlikely bond with Ian.
Reflecting on the casting, Barry says: “We were looking for a very special kind of actor, who could play someone who was young but quite old in the way of thinking, who had to be very silent and sad and strange, but, at the same time, come alive when he meets Pollyanna.
“And you have to believe that she could fall in love with him. So there was a very narrow bandwidth of people who could play this.”
An Irish, Luxembourg, Dutch, Japanese co-production, the role of Robert was suggested by their Dutch co-producer.
McIntosh, who had starred in the Sundance-screened horror, The Woman, was suggested by their UK casting agent.
“Again, Pollyanna McIntosh was Naomi. She had that kind of hard outside exterior and kind of very dark and nihilistic, and, at the same time, was able to see an upside to life and introduce it to the character, Ian. Yeah, they worked out terrifically well,” says Barry.
Shot between Luxembourg and Ireland, many of the scenes were filmed in Cobh.
Incentivised by a Film Board initiative to look beyond Dublin, the coastal town proved an inspired location for Barry, who hails from Bishopstown, in Cork.
“As Brendan said, when you read the book it’s about a guy who lives in a house on the top of a cliff overlooking the sea. And it’s kind of got this otherworldly fairytale tone, and feeling, throughout. The character of the town had to be just almost otherworldly, and the mixture of architecture, being close to the sea with a harbour, and it looking like Ireland, but not looking like Ireland. We sometimes forget, when these places are right there in front of us, just how strange they can look to outsiders, in a good way,” says Barry.
The film offers hope, but there is humour also, albeit a particularly dark strain.
Barry recalls some advice Muldowney gave an audience before one of its festival screenings.
“He said that the one thing he’d say is, ‘if you feel that you want to laugh at certain things in the film, please do. You’re not going to upset anyone.’ It’s just these things that happen and they are, without design to be funny, are humorous. They kind of are.
“And that is a part of Love Eternal and the way it’s played.”