6 November 2012


Having decided to avoid reading reviews of films before seeing them, I'd have hoped to avoid a plot spoiler about Rust and Bone that several critics have given away. Alas, I knew about Marion Cotillard's character in this latest film from Jacques Audiard, before going in. Perhaps because the plot development happens so early in the film, some feel justified in writing about it, but I'm not going to get into the details here, especially when the concentration on her character overlooks something of the film's essence.

The protagonist is actually Ali, the shiftless father of an estranged 5-year-old son called Sam, who's forced to move in with his sister for support when he's left bringing up the kid on his own. As he searches for work, he goes through a stint as a bouncer at a nightclub, and meets Stephanie, a whale trainer. He looks out for her, in an act that she does not forget when tragedy strikes, shortly after. Their friendship draws her out of isolation, but Ali's lack of responsibility doesn't make for a smooth romance.

While so many were praising Audiard's previous film, A Prophet, I felt alienated by it, despite the obviously impressive technical aspects. I wouldn't go so far as to call it pretentious, but I didn't feel like there was any reason to particularly care about the characters in that film. Without suddenly veering into sentimentality, it remains obvious that Audiard really does give a damn about Stephanie and Ali, even though Ali is a flawed enough protagonist that we still get some serious dramatic mileage out of virtually every single relationship he tries to maintain.

Matthias Schoenaerts approximates a slightly more shlubby, more European Ryan Gosling, to the point where casting in any American language remake would be all too obvious, but in Schoenaerts' performance, there's none of that "Hey, girl..." courtesy that launched a thousand internet memes. Ali isn't an obvious romantic lead by any stretch of the imagination- he doesn't drink or take drugs, but he frequently loses his temper with his son, he's complacent about his sister's kindness in taking the two of them into her home, and he spends a lot of his time fucking around. The love story that unfolds, therefore, is all the more compelling for the fact that his tenderness with Stephanie could turn out to be his redeeming quality.

While Ali is the main character in the story, and Schoenaerts gets the most screen time, Marion Cotillard's Stephanie is the film's heart and soul. It's easy to see why the film might be viewed as her journey, but I've yet to decide whether it's a flaw with the film, or a flaw with my interpretation of its main focus, that she isn't central all the way through. Nevertheless, in a year in which several bigger, more iconic film characters have gone through a process of becoming broken and depressed and then rebuilding, Cotillard gives one of the best performances of 2012, as a woman trying to find her feet again, after a tectonic shock to her system. Her chemistry with Schoenaerts is peculiar, but enthralling, and as unconventional a love story as it is, they feel unnaturally natural together.

As with my possible confusion over the focus, it's a film of contrasts, and there's much of the violence that typifies Audiard's previous films in here too. Ali's foray into street fighting forms a large part of the film, and a turning point in Stephanie's attraction to him, and the violence that ensues is gracefully staged and artfully shot. Elsewhere, this is surely the only bit of world cinema that includes Katy Perry and the B-52s on its soundtrack, in moments that never seem overwrought or cheesy. Unfortunately, some will also contrast the first half of the film, which is balanced and transfixing, with the second half, which meanders off into sub-plots, and gives Stephanie a slightly implausible role in Ali's vocation, apparently as a means to keep her in the picture.

Perhaps the biggest contrast about Rust and Bone is that something so melodramatic, with its story and its narrative conventions, should seem so subtle and restrained in its execution. In no small part, it's due to Marion Cotillard's superb performance, so sympathetic and uplifting, and the dynamic she builds with an equally fascinating Matthias Schoenaerts. Overseeing the whole endeavour, Audiard creates moments of ecstatic beauty that might have been cringeworthy elsewhere, and even if the film doesn't keep its composure all of the time, it's never less than engrossing.

Rust and Bone is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Rust and Bone, why not share your comments below? You're also welcome to have a go at me for that awful, potentially spoiler-y pun...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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