November 18, 2012

Out on a Limb

by Steve Dollar

Rust and Bone

There are Hallmark movies of the week with fewer melodramatic deal breakers than Rust and Bone. The extreme events that more-or-less bookend the film are held in balance, though, by a miraculously sustained tension. The sixth film from French director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) pulls off something sly, compelling affection for characters who are not immediately likable. Their crazy/desperate/fucked-up circumstances propel the story without lapsing into sentimentality, instead driving a flinty romance in which hopes that that the lovers beat the odds hover forever in the shadow of the next fateful instance.

Of course, it helps to start with performers as charismatic as these. Matthias Schoenaerts, trimmed down to human scale but still mighty buff from his smashing debut in Bullhead—and with plenty of leftover testosterone sloshing around, is Ali, a man at loose ends after suddenly claiming custody of his young son, whose mother has become too involved with drugs to care for him. Arriving in Antibes penniless after a journey from Belgium, Ali and the boy are taken in by his older sister and her husband, a working-class couple only a rung or two higher up a shaky economic ladder. Soon enough, ex-boxer Ali has landed the obvious gig, working as a bouncer at a cheesy disco. One night, he rescues a drunken Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from a harassing douchebag and drives her home. Gazing at her bare legs exposed by a short skirt, he chastises her. In return, she's brusque and snotty. Back at her place, domestic awkwardness ensues: a whiny boyfriend wants answers. Meanwhile, Ali slides her his phone number.

[Read Steve Dollar's interview with Bullhead director Michael Roskam here.]

Rust and Bone

If you know anything about this movie, you know what happens next. We see Stéphanie at her gig, leading a Speedo-garbed coed crew of whale-trainers in a dancing orca routine at a marine amusement park. No need to be coy about this. Cotillard, for me, ranks as the most beautiful actress alive. The eyes have it, and Audiard maps their emotive surface to spectacular effect throughout the film. He also knows how to stage a moment. The camera fractures movement into brief Cubist flashes, the framed tilted or swerved, brilliant sunlight glancing off the water, laying out a mosaic of sensation paced to the Southern California mall-rat thump of Katy Perry's "Firework." Then: Boom. Bad orca! Stéphanie collapses into the water when the whales flip out and is grievously injured, losing both her legs.

From here, the story becomes the matter of these two characters, both transformed and transforming, connecting with each other through a series of complications and breakthroughs that by the very end of the film wind up suggesting nothing so much as an O. Henry short story (although the film was actually knitted together out of several fictions from the eponymous collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, who interestingly enough once took steroids as research for his novel The Fighter, unrelated to the David O. Russell movie).

Rust and Bone

Stéphanie's haughtiness is replaced by a catastrophic depression. Out of the blue, she calls Ali, and the two strike up an unusual companionship. After an exasperated aside prompts a blunt offer, this turns into a sexual relationship, through which she reawakens. Schoenaerts gives the Ali the demeanor of a testicle on two legs: a bit dim to the needs of anyone but himself, yet with enough heart flickering like a bulb underneath to have a chance at a fuller consciousness.

The carnality of it all goes beyond sex into the camera's embrace of physical form. Even Cotillard's CGI-erased stems become part of that, in their absence, as Audiard makes the audience painfully aware of her character's struggle to reclaim routine movement. The flipside comes as Ali takes up underground street-fighting bouts, skull-crunching spectacles staged in grotesque detail, in which the loser is hammered into semi-conscious submission, left broken in the dirt. In one of the movie's many twists, Stéphanie goes along for the ride, watching from a nearby SUV with a mix of terror and arousal. Is she slumming or has she somehow found an arena that makes sense of her own suffering, a visceral antidote to her self-pity?

Rust and Bone

Audiard and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine set the film in a world of expansive visual possibility, granting absolute primacy to the poetic force of the image. Subplots outline a social commentary parallel to the love story, but those feel less necessary than the emphasis on single stirring scenes. A solitary tooth, spinning in derelict motion, knocked loose in an abstract tableaux. The curls of a woman's hair shadowed against a door frame. Stéphanie, resurrecting herself, tentatively rehearsing her hand signals in a wheelchair as the Antibes sun blasts onto a rooftop, the bubble-gum beat of "Firework" animating the scene. (That's twice with the Katy Perry already, but give Audiard credit: He changes the way you hear the song). When the movie arrives at its Hallmarkest of all Hallmark moments, Stéphanie's return visit to the marine park, standing mute before an aquarium wall to commune with a whale, even Attila the Hun would weep. Just let it go, baby. Cotillard's performance has paid for your tears in advance.

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Posted by ahillis at November 18, 2012 10:38 AM