Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Uneasy Mix: Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone

Note: The following contains spoilers.

Here’s the thing. Any premise involving matters of the heart that pops up in a French film is automatically believable simply because the French never, or almost never, cop out when it comes to purveying honest, adult emotions on screen. So in that vein, the love affair between Ali, a rough hewn boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie, a troubled, angry woman (Marion Cotillard) who has lost her legs in a tragic accident in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) is utterly authentic, even when he's fucking her sans her prosthetics. In any other movie, and particularly an American one, The Sessions excepting, that type of scene would likely come across as awkwardly staged, self-conscious, even risible, but in Rust and Bone, those scenes have both a surprising gentleness and a distinct erotic charge. The problem is that the rest of the film’s plot threads don’t tie up with this one. Rust and Bone is an admirably ambitious movie that, outside of its leads' story, simply doesn’t hold together. It’s an uneasy mix of the tough and tender.

Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone
The movie begins promisingly as Ali and his young son Sam (Armand Verdue) are making their way cross country to the South of France, stealing food and doing their best to game the system. It turns out that Al has rescued the young boy from his negligent / abusive mother, who was using him to run drugs. But Ali simply wants to settle down, which he does at his sister Anna’s place (Corinne Masiero) and slowly begins to carve out a routine for himself and Sam. It’s when Ali encounters Stéphanie that his life changes drastically. They meet when, working as a bouncer, Ali, who also participates in a brutal form of kickboxing for extra cash, rescues her from an abusive patron at a disco. They begin something of a relationship, but it’s not serious until he receives a call from an isolated Stéphanie, who reaches out to him after her devastating accident. He’s the only one, she figures, who won’t pity her. Even then the relationship is casual (Ali sleeps around), but slowly the angry Stéphanie falls for him – but what does Ali, a monosyllabic sort who keeps his feelings close to his vest, want? Tragic circumstances will eventually force him to decide on that.

As long as the movie concentrates on Ali and Stéphanie, it’s highly compelling. Schoenaerts, an actor I’m not familiar with, is a real find: a flinty Steve McQueen type who never plays to sentiment and whose character does things which will make the audience recoil from his actions.Yet Schoenaerts brings layers to Ali that also makes you relate to him and his complex situation.(I like the fact that his Arab ancestry isn’t put into play here except as an ordinary matter of fact. In Audiards’ most recent film, A Prophet (Un prophète, 2009), the protagonist’s Arab identity was a big part of the whole. Cotillard (Ma Vie en Rose), a stunner who never plays up her beauty, even often plays against it, delivers a brave, vanity-free performance, extending to the raw sequences where she displays herself without her legs (I don’t usually comment on special effects but these are seamless) even during sex. And as Sam, Verdure is as natural as any actor twice his age.

Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone
 Where the film falters and coming from Audiard, whose last two features, The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté, 2005) and A Prophet were well-nigh perfectly executed, disappointingly so, is in the film’s other subplots. (Audiard co-wrote the movie, based on Toronto-born writer Craig Davidson’s short story of the same name, with Thomas Bidegain.) Ali’s involvement with a security firm hired by French outlet chains to spy on their workers taps some of the social concerns already dealt with in The Beat that My Heart Skipped. The bloody, punishing boxing sequences eventually succumb to cliché, though the close up of a tooth punched out of a jaw skittering across the floor is strikingly original. And the relationship between Ali and Sam veers in and out of the movie, dispensed with for long periods of time until it’s wheeled out again for dramatic purposes. Much of this cluttered, uneven storyline likely has to do with what happens when one stretches out a slim story to fill a two-hour feature but, truth be told, very little of Davidson’s somewhat overwritten tale is actually in the film. The movie’s penultimate scene, though softened somewhat, which I sensed while watching it, is one, and the connection between Ali and Sam (though it’s the man’s nephew in the Rust and Bone story) is another. The love story between Ali and Stéphanie is completely original.

Ironically, Rust and Bone actually feels too literary at times. Stéphanie’s job prior to the accident, as a performer at a marine amusement park where she showboats alongside the whales, seems more like a conceit; it never rings true and Audiard’s attempts to impart some poetic grandeur to the film’s gritty fight scenes, amidst their seamy background, don’t work. (Outside of Raging Bull, such boxing scenes rarely do.) And like his talented counterpart Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), whose film Little White Lies, pandered to a non-French (read: American) sentimental film going audience, Rust and Bone’s conclusion does so, too, albeit not nearly as blatantly as Guillaume’s movie. (Interestingly, Schoenaerts stars in Canet’s next movie, Blood Ties (Les liens du sang) alongside Cotillard, who is Canet’s life partner.) What Audiard does superbly is bring atmosphere alive on screen; his present day, down at the heels and fractured France is a pungently evoked extra character in many ways. And I had to admire Audiard’s gutsy cinematic reach, even if he didn’t quite pull it off.  For the most part, he’s not repeating himself and trying to stretch himself in the process. His tonally variable but always memorable direction and Schoenaerts’ and Cotillard’s amazing performances ensure that Rust and Bone is at least worth a look.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

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