Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)

2012. 122 min. Rated R – brief full frontal - male, rather explicit sex, language, violence, blood. It’s all good.

IMDB says… Put in charge of his young son, Alain leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain's bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

The 73rd Virgin says… This comes with a four star review from the Starland blog. I liked it more but I’m a sucker for romance. It is great Hollywood movie-making, only better. Sitting on this side of the water and only occasionally gleaning French movies from Netflix, one could get the impression that they make only grim slice of life navel gazers or bright and sparkly sex comedies, generally involving men too old for their partner. I was unprepared for a bawdy, brutal and pretty entertaining popular drama that energetically combines elements from every available genre; From Lifetime Network disease-of-the- week, to Overcoming-All-Obstacles sports drama, to downtrodden working class employee rights, to quiet art house character study, to Jaws. It’s all here, crammed into 122 minutes.

Despite the genre-mashing, the script and dialog by director Jaques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain are things of delicate beauty. There is no exposition about what these people are. They just are. And despite the straight line narrative and unlikely story, not a scene is wasted and every scene contains elements that are so recognizable and well observed that these characters make sense.

And the film just looks great.

I suppose it cheats a bit by having one of the most beautiful actresses in the world as the damaged goods, but Marion Cotillard can go from expressively cute to threatening to a little worn in an instant. Director Audiard loves to stick his camera right into the middle of the action making us a third member in every conversation, and the close-ups serve Cotillard well. It’s nice to see her back in action after the dreary Inception and Dark Knight Rises.

Audiard also makes his actors and audience look into blinding sun shots to serve, I guess, as harbingers of major character growth and development. But when the scariest foreshadowing is called for, he pulls back and lets us see our worst fears remotely.

The movie starts with Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali (per Rotten Tomatoes and the subtitles) or Alain (per IMDB), a down on his luck bouncer, petty thief, and kick boxer who is traveling through France with his five-year-old son to flop out with his sister somewhere near the Riviera. I don’t know if his name is meant to reference back to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but there are similarities to the disenfranchised hero of that story. Given his name and downtrodden status, I thought maybe he was supposed to be an impoverished light-skinned Algerian, but IMDB says he’s Belgian. Since he casually tells a woman he hardly knows that she “dresses like a whore”, I thought maybe he was Muslim. That’s what I get for thinking.

As father and son ride the train they scavenge left over food and water from trash bins, and Ali occasionally thieves along the way. He lands with his sister and brother-in-law who work service jobs and make money on the side any way they can. The chilly reception from Sis indicates there is some history, but we never explore it.

We first meet Cotillard as Stephanie at the end of a bar fight from which she is escaping with a bloody nose, in a black miniskirt, with nifty foreshadowing of her legs. Ali is the bouncer and he offers to call her a cab and then drives her home. There is a testy exchange with her bossy live-in boyfriend, but Ali is smart enough to not start fights. He leaves his number.

The next morning we find that Stephanie is, of all things, a star trainer of orcas at a water park. Not having ever been to a European water park, I was surprised to discover they feature cheerleaders like college football. Anyway, perhaps she is a little hung over; perhaps her slightly jealous assistant is a little slow getting the fish to the exhibition stand; perhaps it is just bad luck; but today everything goes wrong. Audiard uses beautiful slow motion of the three orcas, beautiful music, and beautiful point of view underwater shots to build tension while still admiring the nature and intelligence of these friggin’ huge predatory dolphins. I can’t think of any scene like this from any other drama.

A few months later Ali is jogging, working security, and parenting very badly when his cell phone rings. In a brutal but believable scene he finds Stephanie in her dark apartment, and the characters are defined for the rest of the movie. Rather than showering her with condescension and false concern he just asks if she wants the window opened and then hauls her down to the beach for a good bath.

As they get to know each other there is no particular regard displayed between them. He is bullish and thoughtless and always on the make, but benignly so. She is a little bossy and needy but knows she can’t push his buttons. He doesn’t have any.

She invites herself along to his illegal ultimate fighting competitions, where the bettors create an informal ring around the combatants and they continue until someone is unconscious. We realize that the same woman who is attracted to bar fights and huge predatory sea mammals might also enjoy this kind of thing.

When Stephanie finally works up the courage to wonder if her lady parts still work, Ali declares himself “OP”, that is, operational, and offers his help. Whatever his sexual predations and his bloody part-time job, he doesn’t really have a mean bone in his body. Women are for sex. Handicapped women are for slightly different sex. No big deal. Why would one stop long enough to be concerned?

Audiard pokes fun at our expectations by having Stephanie begin practicing her training moves again to a pulsing, uplifting pop song. Of course, we expect her to return triumphant to the show. Instead the music stops and we get this languid scene of something like forgiveness – computer aided or not, this is lovely - followed by her sad reunion with co-workers. There’s no going back, and besides she’s wondering if Ali is “OP”. Perfection.

Another scene involves Ali getting his head handed to him in a fight and finding inspiration, not in a woman tearfully screaming his name, but in this rather hard-faced cripple. The old joke is that men built great civilizations to impress women. The scene starts with a bloody tooth spinning on the pavement. And there’s that blinding light off the car door again.

They later go to the bar where they first met and with precise characterization Audiard and Cotillard have Stephanie demurely cover her injury, NOT because she is surrounded by men, but because she is surrounded by beautiful young women. Perfection. As she becomes more and more isolated in the noisy crowd, watching her face go from cautiously happy, to agitated, to bored, to lonely, to ornery, to letting her cane do the talking, is acting school in about one minute.

I could hyperventilate about scene after scene but we would never get out of this.

Ali finally reaches his own level of incompetence as a parent, which sets up the final conflict. The resolution and coda would have been miserably clichéd in almost any Hollywood production. Here they are keenly observed, dramatic, mature, cautionary, and satisfying – and then a fade to blinding white screen.

I couldn’t care less if the French consider Americans to be noisy, monolingual, fat and tasteless. I'm not tasteless. English is our language and so be it. But for a nation of movie fans to miss out on a story so good and images so stunning simply for fear of having to read subtitles is just sad.


  1. "But for a nation of movie fans to miss out on a story so good and images so stunning simply for fear of having to read subtitles is just sad."

    Ain't that the truth! Well done review.

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