Monday, February 11, 2013

Rent and Honed

     Three years ago I was rooting for A Prophet.  I have great respect for writer/director Michael Haneke (whose current film, Amour, has five Oscar nominations) and really, really like The White Ribbon (which was up against A Prophet in Best Foreign Language Film).  Still, I was rooting for writer/director Jaques Audiard's brutal prison set crime drama all the way.  To say that I was looking forward to his follow up, Rust and Bone, is an understatement, especially when you consider that it stars two of my favorite international acting talents.  For those who are expecting something similar to the director's former Oscar contender, you are in for a major surprise.
     Rust and Bone is a total departure for Audiard, a love story, albeit one born more in violence and tragedy than candy and roses.  It is a delightfully non-formulaic romance that tells as much of its story in subtext as in narrative.  While co-stars Corinne Masiero and Bouli Lanners lend able support (and child star Armand Verdure is very near perfection), the film belongs to Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts and  the story of how their characters, Stephanie and Ali, come into each other's lives.  Their chemistry is vibrant, complicated, and wholly believable.  The stew of elements involved in their budding relationship actually results in maybe the best cinematic first kiss scene ever, far more cathartic than the run of the mill.
     No matter what language Ms. Cotillard is acting in, she continues to be one of the most consistantly flawless performers working today.  She can convey any range or depth of emotion required of her, without histrionics, but her glances are still louder than a shout.  Her character, Stephanie, is a trainer of Orcas who loses her legs in a horrible accident on the job.  Stephanie is a creature of the water. It is the source of her vocation and the site of her greatest tragedy.  She is portrayed in the opening credits as being underwater and it is where her story always changes.
     Stephanie meets Michael just before her accident and they begin to spend time together soon after she gets out of the hospital.  He carries her, quite literally, throughout the early days of her healing process.  He returns her to the water which is the first phase of her rebirth.  When she is finally able to stand again, the sight of it gives him the courage to win impossible fights. Thus begins the phase of the movie that focuses on Ali.
     The idea of little deaths and rebirths over the course of life is a major theme of this film, and for this most unromantic of romances to end well, both of our protagonists must face serious transitions.  If anything, Ali is more damaged than Stephanie when the two of them meet, but his damage is on the inside.  Schoenaerts is really unrivaled at playing vulnerable, sensitive men who cover up their tender natures with rage and physical intimidation.  Ali is no carbon copy of the actor's performance in Bullhead, however.  This role is far more tempered.  He plays a man who is merely frightened and walled off, not one in a narcotic induced emotional melt down.  Note: he's much sexier this way.
     If Stephanie is a creature of the water, then Ali is one of ice, which (appropriately enough) is exactly the same thing yet entirely different.  He is trying to learn to be a father and to be something to Stephanie that he has no idea how to be.  He did not even realize how much of himself he was missing.  She supports him and carries him as much as he will let her, but there is still ice around much of his heart.
     IF this pair is to have a happy ending, Ali will have to break through not only this metaphorical ice, but physical ice as well in order to reach the water on the other side.  Both battles cannot be won without permanent scars, but it is the ONLY way that his rebirth can occur.
    The entire production is very strong here.  I particularly loved cinematographer Stephane Fontaine's work.  The movie contains some extraordinary imagery, especially a final trip back to the water that Stephanie takes on her own new legs (you'll know it when you see it).  The score is also extraordinary and integrated into the film seamlessly.  Little surprise there; it was composed by Alexandre Desplat.
     If you haven''t figured it out, this is another of my favorite films of the year.  I found it RICHLY rewarding and I KNOW that it will be worth re-watching in the future.  I don't know how Cotillard was ignored by the Academy this year, but it is their loss.  Audiard and Schoenaerts are fast becoming names whose attachment to a project excites me as much as anyone working in American cinema.  5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles: Above All, Like a Bullheaded Man (Bullhead review)

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