Friday, December 21, 2012

Rust and Bone Movie Review

Living principally on a diet of Hollywood cinema, it would be easy to believe that there’s only one way to tell a story of physical disability. American movies handle similar material in roughly the same formula again and again. Even when it’s done competently, it’s not any more interesting or groundbreaking than the last time it was done well. This year, French cinema has offered up two examples (at least among films that found American distribution) of the way the film medium can tell a story of a character with a severe physical handicap and not make it maudlin, manipulative, and utterly predictable. The first was The Intouchables, which, had it opened later in the year, would almost certainly be a serious awards contender. The second is Rust and Bone, which has recently generated some Oscar buzz. Both films have been nominated for the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, but Academy rules limit one film per country and France selected the former.

I have not written about The Intouchables on this blog, though I may yet if I take a second look at the film. This review is more specifically concerned with the latter film, which stars Marion Cotillard (still willing, despite enormous Hollywood success, to return to her native country to make smaller, personal films) as Stephanie, a woman who suffers the loss of both legs above the knee after a devastating accident in her job as a trainer at a SeaWorld-like amusement park in a town on the French Riviera. Her foil, after falling into debilitating depression, is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an underemployed working class father who leaves his hometown with his five year old son under unexplained circumstances.

Ali makes a meager living working odd jobs in security and later, a questionable role in setting up surveillance cameras in retails outlets for spying on employees. He makes side cash in illegal bare-knuckles boxing matches. Schoenaerts is one of the greatest physical specimens of an actor you’ll see in contemporary cinema. Think of Tom Hardy in Warrior for a sense of what he brings to the role. Ali is not all that distant from the character Schoenaerts played in last year’s Bullhead, where he was a man who dosed himself with bovine steroids to make up for the loss of his testicles as a child. In that movie, nominated for last year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar, he was an almost uncontrollable mass of testosterone. Here he takes that same unbridled aggression and buries it beneath the surface until his prize fights, where he unleashes a fury of fists and elbows.

Stephanie meets Ali before her accident, but doesn’t begin a friendship with him until several months after, at which time his fights bring a certain animal pleasure to her. These are two broken individuals, broken in both a physical and emotional sense. It would be easy to craft a cloying story in which they learn to grow as people together. But Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who adapted the screenplay from Craig Davidson’s short story collection, have no interest in cheap theatrics. Their story is not about two people falling in love through adverse conditions, but about two unlikely souls meeting and learning to be human through simple acts like conversation and sex. Yes, Ali and Stephanie find a connection through an act that is at once deeply emotional and instinctively animal. Stephanie uses it as a way to confirm that she can still get pleasure like a human being. Ali is more than willing to accommodate. Because of the innately human emotional connection to sex, you know that eventually this arrangement will become problematic. But the handling of it is a far cry from what we’ve been conditioned to expect from the movies.

Audiard, who also directs, uses mostly handheld cameras, a style that seems to have become increasingly popular in recent European cinema, signaling a re-emergence of French Realism. The gritty setting in the working class neighborhoods of Cannes, not far from the glamorous hotels and palm tree-strewn beaches that is the playground of the rich and famous, only helps sell the class division that is one of the film’s subtexts. This is a side of the French Riviera we never have to see. The occasional glimpses of Mediterranean beaches are a grim reminder that behind those lavish resorts lay real people living quiet lives of desperation.

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