Sunday, March 11, 2018

Our March Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: Jacques Audiard's RUST AND BONE

Rust and Bone (de rouille et d’os):  
the taste of blood when a blow to 
the mouth crushes lips against teeth 

Noted French director Jacques Audiard (shown below) wrote the screenplay and directed the much feted 2012 film, RUST AND BONE, streaming now on Netflix and elsewhere, based on short stories by Canadian Craig Davidson from his “Rust and Bone” collection.

The film is set in Antibes, nearby Cannes on the Cote d’Azure — a surprisingly un-lux world of everyday realism — a dark, unglamorous slice of life in a blue-collar community where there’s economic hardship and labor conflict. Sun glinting on ocean adds irony rather than glamour and so do some American pop tunes, like Katie Perry’s ‘Firework’ included in the score by Alexandre Desplat. (At last Sunday’s Academy Awards Desplat won the Oscar for best original score for best picture, The Shape of Water, and has scored dozens of films.)

This film is full of contradiction — a strangely wonderful and uplifting love story deployed in a gritty, feel-bad movie. It is also a soap opera designed to push one’s buttons, a beauty-and-beast fairy tale in which the melodrama is far overshadowed by its compelling characters.

Playing Ali is Belgian actor of growing note, Matthias Schoenaerts. Ali is a loner, a boxer, drifter, grifter, and father to little Sam, (played by Armand Verdure— see them below), whom he has collected from a mother using him as a drug mule, and traveled to Ali’s sister who lives in Antibes on the coast. Director Audiard uses the odd little boy as a touchstone and a lingering source of concern. Sam is in the shadow but an unspoken witness of adult behavior, a victim in a life made uncertain by his elders whom we see through his eyes.

Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero),a supermarket cashier and her truck driver husband, call home a dingy, crowded cottage but she takes them in and provides some structure and care to the skittish 5-year-old. The father finds work variously as a club bouncer, night watchman, and boxer, mostly neglecting the son. Ali doesn’t think ahead to consequences — he’s a creature of the moment with somewhat mindless and muscle resistance to threats that have seen him through whatever life hurls his way.

Each of Schoenhaerts’ films has attracted interest by other actors and directors who simply want THAT — whatever it is that makes him magnetic, sympathetic, and not celebrity-like. (I think it is his evident sincerity and unshowy, modest affect.) Rust and Bone in 2012 led Carey Mulligan to want him for the part of Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd. Since then he has done Suite Française with Michelle Williams, A Little Chaos with Kate Winslet, The Danish Girl’, and recently, Red Sparrow among other projects in a growing wave of interest in his wares. (I’d like to see him lead films rather than be a spark in the ensemble parts he has done most recently.)

The other protagonist here is Stephanie, the brilliant Marion Cotillard (Midnight in Paris and Allied are two of her English-speaking films), who plays a beautiful whale trainer at the local Marineland. She lives with a man in whom she apparently holds little interest; we meet him once before her life changes utterly.

We see her skill and confidence as an animal handler just moments before she is brutally wounded by an Orca. She wakes in the hospital to find both legs missing from above the knee, leaving her devastated, almost suicidal (being consoled by a colleague below). Cotillard is breathtaking at engaging the viewer to feel what Stephanie feels; Meryl Streep is our mistress of empathy but Cotillard pulls you in just as much, quietly without histrionics.

The story chronicles Stephanie’s gradual recovery, her reassertion of control over her body as a working woman, a sexual woman. She sets aside her awkwardness in order to have sex, and we share with her the incremental recovery of joy and self-confidence. Ali becomes enmeshed in this, beginning as an acquaintance, barely a friend. He treats his many sexual encounters as mindless events — the unemotional business of satisfying a need; he becomes Stephanie’s unromantic agent of healing.

He first takes her swimming and later suggests sex in response to her wondering aloud whether ‘everything’ still works. With her own cool, un-self-pitying urge toward self-discovery, she will not kiss him, a match for his kind but matter-of-fact indifference, but his being unperturbed that her body is broken sets in motion her emotional recovery.

One day she accompanies him to an illegal street fight, a particularly repulsive encounter that progresses until he is on the ground being slammed and bloodied by a bulkier, brawnier opponent.

Stephanie gets out of the car on her prosthetic legs and walks with half-smile and quiet certainty toward the scrum of staring male onlookers until Ali can see her; her courage and implicit support leads him to muster the will to throw off his opponent. He doesn’t realize it in the midst of the intensely physical encounter or even afterwards, but her cool assertiveness on his behalf is the precursor to his maturity into a sentient adult who will take responsibility for his actions.

While in the main we appear to be dealing with Stephanie’s recovery, in fact the changes in Ali signify even more than her repair from loss of limbs. From a muscle driven, live-for-the-moment combatant in his own life, he slowly lets Stephanie and his son occupy his mind and heart until at last he finds he desperately cannot do without them. Events proceed in which he betrays them both, and his sister, as he goes about his business ignoring the results of decisions he makes and disappointments he causes. ‘You’re being a pain’ he replies to being called on his thoughtlessness. (What woman hasn’t heard that or seen it on her man’s face and been fearful of being thought a nag.) 

Ali is worse than the typical male who acts on instinct without thinking. So it is especially satisfying to see this man understand that what he’s got to lose is worth conscious attention and change to his indifferent behavior. In the end, Ali, the woke man, the beast who chooses to be tender, is proud of Stephanie’s boldness and her sureness that disability does not means she is less. Her acceptance of his ugly boxing pastime is harder to like, but she appears to experience his physicality with vicarious pleasure given her own loss. At any rate you feel the self-confidence-building effect they have on each other; it is an in-depth dive into a relationship that is beginning to work.

Rust and Bone won almost 30 awards in France, here, and inother countries, and was nominated for about 50 more. For a grim little slice of life it is particularly affecting and memorable.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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