December 2012 – January 2013

Arts & Letters

As it Comes

By Luke Davies
Jacques Audiard’s ‘Rust and Bone’

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a hulking, blank-faced man, with his five-year-old son Sam in tow, first hitchhikes, then takes the train from the dark, grimy north to the sunny expanses of the French Mediterranean coast, where he and Sam are to crash for a while in the garage beneath his sister’s apartment. Apparently Sam’s mother has been using him to smuggle drugs; the decision to head south, a protective response, seems to have been made with very little planning and even less money. On the train, Ali rifles through the seat pockets of departed passengers, collecting half-empty bags of chips and other food scraps in order to put together a ‘meal’.

On the morning of their arrival in Antibes, Ali does a snatch-and-run from a phone shop, leaving a bewildered Sam to wonder where his dad has gone. He’s not the world’s best father, in other words – though he soon reunites with Sam (Armand Verdure), bringing a McDonald’s feast, so things are looking up. Next, he arrives on his sister’s doorstep and looks for work, finding a job as a bouncer in a nightclub.

Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a 30-something woman who runs the orca show at Marineland, the aquatic theme park in the town, seems mired in a kind of existential funk: bored in her relationship, bored even in going through the motions of feeding and ‘conducting’ the giant killer whales in front of the cheering holiday crowds. There’s something cold and hard behind her eyes, a detachment born of unfulfilled dreams. We meet her in a fight at the nightclub where Ali works; in short order he breaks up the fight, hurts his hand in the process, drives her home (she’s bloody-faced), invites himself upstairs to ice his hand, and puts Stéphanie’s angry boyfriend in his place. She’s aloof; in his matter-of-fact way, Ali gives her his number anyway.

Life goes on. Ali is intermittently cruel, then kind, to his son. In his spare time, while not exactly predatory, he’s up for whatever sexual opportunity comes his way. Meanwhile, in a horrific accident during the orca show, Stéphanie loses her legs. (The special effects are seamless and invisible, making Stéphanie’s loss all the more naked.) Some months after the accident, still in the early stages of her rehabilitation and emerging from her shock and bewilderment, Stéphanie contacts the bouncer she’d met just once. Would Ali like to catch up? Sure. Had he heard about what happened to her? Of course. He’d seen it on the news.

French director Jacques Audiard makes films that I’d divide into two categories: quite good and very good. Rust and Bone, a smart, surprising film, is certainly quite good. Audiard’s films have a matter-of-factness that tends to mirror that of their protagonists, both male and female. His particular strength lies in weighting down even the most extreme scenarios in a commonplace but finely drawn world: the plain style, the simple construction, that deadpan tone always coalesce to form a cohesive and gripping whole. They tend to be cliché-free zones, too. The stories Audiard tells are improbable, but not in the manner of Hollywood. Rather, Audiard creates such deft dramas that we very happily suspend our disbelief. In Read My Lips (2001), a delightfully crisp crime caper grafted to an older woman–younger man romance, bored, partially deaf lip-reader Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) and irresistibly sexy thief and wastrel Paul (Vincent Cassel) team up to turn the tables on her awful employers as the sexual heat rises. In The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), a loose remake of James Toback’s 1978 Fingers, Romain Duris plays a standover man who wonders if he might reawaken a childhood love of music and become, like his mother, a concert pianist. That sounds corny, and obvious – the violence of one world clashing with the elegance of the other. But in the end you feel you’ve watched a highly intelligent film about morality and choices.

Audiard’s masterpiece is A Prophet (2009), one of the strongest and most compelling films of the last few years, in which newcomer Tahar Rahim plays a new prisoner whose innocence is a potentially lethal defect. His rise through the ranks, his poker-faced plotting, the unfolding of his own intelligence as it comes to him – it’s like watching someone build muscle – is a dramatically wondrous experience. This is storytelling at its strongest, without hooks or tricks, like those perfectly built Amish cupboards that endure not despite but because of the absence of nails and screws.

In Rust and Bone Audiard has taken elements from Craig Davidson’s short story collection of the same name and blended them into a single narrative. You could say there’s a pattern emerging in Audiard’s work. He takes as his characters the bland, the nondescript, the under-the-radar, the everyday. Then he makes them numb. Then he places them in scenarios where the obstinate strangeness of the world starts to bombard them from every angle. Then we see how they’ll awaken from their numbness.

Ali falls in with a “last man standing wins” kind of fight club. It’s not even the money that attracts him; he seems to come most fully alive in the midst of violence and pain. Stéphanie is astonished by this brutal world, taking place in backwater gravel parking lots, among shouting men throwing their money down. At first they’re suspicious of her presence. Later, they get used to her. She watches the violence with detached curiosity – perhaps, the film seems to suggest at one moment, even arousal. She wears her artificial legs by now. “Ça va, Robocop?” the men call out to her affectionately. Later, she becomes Ali’s de facto manager.

Belgian actor Schoenaerts, who came to attention in the much-acclaimed Bullhead (2011) plays beautifully a man with the kind of depthlessness only an actor with depth could access. Cotillard, who won the Oscar for Best Actress as a striking Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007), plays Stéphanie as someone whose layered depths may – or may not – reveal themselves at any moment. Part of the film’s tension lies in our sensing just how blocked the access points to these depths are. It’s a fine actor who can modulate such suppression.

Ali takes Stéphanie out in her wheelchair with the same insouciance with which he approaches the rest of his life: he’s a low-temperature brooder, a little opaque. But with Audiard, major narrative shifts tend to come secreted in the tiniest, most nonchalant moments. “Do you mind talking about it?” asks Ali, of Stéphanie’s leglessness, when they first venture out for coffee. “No, I couldn’t care less,” she replies. She doesn’t need to talk about it; she needs to discover how much of her old life she can reclaim. “You want to fuck?” he asks casually, not long after. She’s surprised, but only that he asked the question a fraction earlier than she’d expected. “To see if it still works,” he adds helpfully.

The love affair that ensues is feckless, at first. It seems Ali intends to continue with his all-inclusive attitude to taking lovers, while Stéphanie is to maintain her coolness and distance. His apparent lack of interest in her physical plight makes her feel somehow safe in his arms. Whether he doesn’t treat her differently because of his unreconstructed male caddishness or some innate sensitivity is not entirely clear. (I lean towards the former explanation.) It barely occurs to Ali, whose interior life appears to be glacially slow, that Stéphanie might in fact be mired in post-traumatic stress. After Ali dances, then leaves, with a young woman in a nightclub, in front of Stéphanie, she pulls him up on it. “If we continue, we have to do it right,” she chides the next day. “Let’s show some manners.”

Rust and Bone is subdued in tone, but never sedate in pace. Audiard moves the sequences forward at quite a crack, compressing information, dropping the unnecessary, and always trusting the audience’s intelligence, its capacity to fill in the gaps. The plain style is occasionally offset by moments of hallucinatory intensity, as in a gut-wrenching scene on a frozen lake, or the day Stéphanie goes back to visit her former colleagues at Marineland, on her new artificial legs. There, she stands in front of a great wall of glass, behind which recede the blue depths of the orca enclosure. Suddenly, an orca heaves into view, coming face to face with Stéphanie on the other side of the glass; it’s a shot that raises the hairs on the back of the neck. She’s crossed that thin membrane between normality and catastrophe once already, on the day of the accident, in front of the bright crowds. Here, in her moment of private communion with this great and frightening power, she begins the slow process of turning catastrophe into wisdom.

 

As the Monthly went to press, Rust and Bone’s Australian release was postponed until March 2013. 

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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