Monday, May 21, 2012

Cannes '12 Review: "Rust and Bone" [Competition]

As bracing, unromantic, and muscular as its male lead, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, the follow up to his excellent mob drama/thriller A Prophet (2009), is a solid, well-acted film, one that impresses even as it fails to live up to its predecessor. Though it's doubtful it will make quite the international splash that Prophet did a few years ago, Audiard's drama should perform well, and could even land the director a second nomination for Foreign Language Film, despite the handful of flaws that keep it from true greatness. 

Based on a series of short stories (that are actually set in the United States), Rust chronicles the relationship between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, a break out from the Belgian drama Bullhead), a poor club bouncer, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at water park in southern France. After a brief meet up at a club (Ali takes Stephanie home after she's injured in a fight), the pair are reunited after Stephanie has an accident at work that leaves her without both of her legs. From there, the two form a bond that helps Stephanie put her life back together.

Yet as much potential as there is for cliche in the set ups, Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain present the cycle of physical and emotional recovery in such a stark manner that there's little room for the narrative to fall into maudlin histrionics. In this regard, the film mimics the attitude of Ali, a man who is certainly capable of love, but rarely good at expressing it. Whether with his five year old son or with Stephanie, Ali rarely lets his guard down, offering comfort in the smallest amount possible. This has something of a ripple effect across the film and its performances. Schoenaerts and Cotillard deliver strong turns, though it may take audiences a while to connect with them, seeing as much of the emotion is contained to body language and glances. 

Ultimately, it's not a bad thing at all, and allows the performances room to breathe and grow in your head once the credits start rolling. And for those afraid that the film will be too contained for its own good, don't worry. Both leads have moments to let their emotions explode onto the screen, and there's a not a false note to be found in any of it. Cotillard has the right mix of beauty and steely determination for Stephanie, making up for some of the vagueness of the character. Always a watchable screen presence, here she really gets to inject something more than star quality in the role, subtle and flash-free though it may be. Schoenaerts is equally impressive, and where Cotillard communicates beautifully with her eyes, he does so with his hulking body.

Where the tone and execution are less successful are in the overall plot. Though the structure is admirable for trying to make the arcs feel less conventional, at times the different threads feel too fractured. Ali's side job as a street boxer never quite materializes into anything profoundly emotional, despite the immense physicality involved, and at times you wish that Audiard would string more than two scenes in a subplot together to build on the emotion (it's contained enough as it is, why limit its potential further?). But while Ali's fighting and Stephanie's recovery (as well as their gradual relationship) all work despite the bumps in the road, a key story involving Ali and some shady dealings isn't emphasized enough. It appears vaguely two or three times, and then only returns for the sake of dramatic convenience. So even though it matters a great deal to a key supporting character, it's a moment where the film's lack of overt sentiment truly leaves the audience at arm's length, and not in a good way. What really makes this a shame is that it's this incident that sends the film to its conclusion, and the result is that one key scene near the end, while heart-stopping, also feels a tad contrived because of the fragmented narrative that preceded it. 

Even so, said ending is effective on its own terms in how it relates to the tone and themes present. On the technical side, the narrative is carried by sun-blasted, stark images, a limited color palette, and frill-free, hard edits. Audiard also makes smart use of slow motion to highlight the importance of whale training and street fighting to Stephanie and Ali, respectively. Alexandre Desplat (who scored three of the competition films) contributes a low-key, appropriate score, although it's ultimately unmemorable. 

It's worth noting that at the 2009 Cannes Festival, Audiard's A Prophet came in second place, losing the Palme D'Or to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. The decision that year must have been tough, as both films, though quite different, stand at roughly the same level. Barring a surprise, however, Audiard is a little further behind Haneke this go-round, which I'll get into further when I finish my Amour review.

Grade: B/B-

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