Free­dom fight­ers

Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s lat­est is a melo­dra­matic, angst-rid­den tri­umph, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

There’s a great deal of con­flict in the pe­cu­liar new film from French mae­stro Jac­ques Au­di­ard. Peo­ple are con­stantly get­ting punched, suf­fer­ing aw­ful catas­tro­phes and fall­ing out of love with each other. But the most in­trigu­ing bat­tle is, per­haps, that be­tween the two lead ac­tors and the wild, undis­ci­plined bou­quet of plots. On bal­ance – though it’s a close-run thing – Matthias Schoe­naerts and Mar­ion Cotil­lard just about fight their way free from the nar­ra­tive jun­gle. They are not, of course, asked to strug­gle alone. This is a beau­ti­fully acted and gor­geously shot film. The di­rec­tor of A Prophet and The

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Beat My Heart Skipped con­firms his gift for find­ing po­etry in moral squalor. Stephane Fon­taine, Au­di­ard’s reg­u­lar cin­e­matog­ra­pher, sur­rounds the ac­tion with a soupy fuzz that echoes the film’s spir­i­tual un­cer­tainty. It’s just a shame the story re­mains so dis­or­dered.

The prob­lems stem from Au­di­ard’s de­ci­sion to work from a se­ries of short sto­ries by Cana­dian au­thor Craig David­son. Many of the plots seem ro­bust enough to serve as the ba­sis for a movie. But they don’t al­ways fit to­gether snugly. We be­gin with Alain (Schoe­naerts), ap­par­ently home­less, trav­el­ling to the south of France with his young son. Rust and Bone is pro­duced by the Dar­denne broth­ers’ pro­duc­tion com­pany and the open­ing se­quence throbs with their anx­ious nat­u­ral­ism. Alain gath­ers food where he can. The fa­ther and son catch sleep in any un­oc­cu­pied cor­ner.

Even­tu­ally they end up stay­ing with Alain’s ha­rassed sis­ter. He finds a few dead-end jobs: se­cu­rity guard, bouncer, a scam in­volv­ing the in­stal­la­tion of sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

The ac­tion prop­erly kicks off when he res­cues Stephanie (Cotil­lard), a dis­tracted young woman, from a fight at a noisy club. It tran­spires that she is (of all things) a trainer of killer whales. Some short time later, fol­low­ing an ac­ci­dent that sev­ers both her legs, the two em­bark on an event­ful, tur­bu­lent ro­mance.

The two lead per­for­mances are fault­less. Schoe­naerts man­ages to dredge up enough charisma to com­pen­sate for his char­ac­ter’s stub­born amoral­ity and in­tel­lec­tual lazi­ness. Cotil­lard has a sad in­ten­sity that calls out for such extravagantly dam­aged roles. Bash­ing sweatily against one an­other – lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively – the cou­ple of­fer an ef­fec­tive study of in­com­pat­i­ble par­ti­cles forced to­gether by in­ex­pli­ca­ble nat­u­ral forces.

If the film con­cen­trated its at­ten­tion solely on that re­la­tion­ship then Au­di­ard might have de­liv­ered a cop­per-bot­tomed clas­sic. But Rust and Bone has other sto­ries to tell. That sub­plot about the sur­veil­lance cam­eras wan­ders down a me­an­der­ing side-road to nowhere very much. Sud­denly, we find our­selves in the world of bare-knuckle box­ing. In the fi­nal third – vir­tu­ally from nowhere – an aw­ful trauma ar­rives to nudge the ac­tion to­wards full-blooded, fan-your-armpits melo­drama.

Throughout all this, the film wal­lows in the sort of fash­ion­ably butch angst that char­ac­terises the writ­ing of such toy ex­is­ten­tial­ists as Chuck Palah­niuk and Michel Houelle­becq. No­body knows what a joke is. Ev­ery­body clutches a string at­tached to his or her own per­sonal cloud. One can un­der­stand why a per­son might feel a tad gloomy af­ter los­ing their legs in a marine park. The other char­ac­ters wear their de­pres­sion as a kind of triv­ial ornament.

For all that, Rust and Bone still emerges as a very im­pres­sive achieve­ment from a di­rec­tor who – though pos­sessed of a recog­nis­able voice – seems in­tent on stretch­ing him­self with each new project. The film ends up look­ing like a tri­umphant re­sponse to a for­bid­ding chal­lenge. Is it pos­si­ble to make a se­ri­ous film from a col­lec­tion of un­likely, melo­dra­matic sto­ries that refuse to bind them­selves to­gether into any kind of co­he­sive mass? It seems so. A leap of faith may, how­ever, be nec­es­sary from the au­di­ence.

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