BEIRUT: You know a film has left a mark on you when you feel the urge to read the fiction that inspired it.
Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” is such a film. Yet before its surprising mixture of character and plot have a chance to speak, the work is foremost a thing of light and silence. Audiard opens with a dreamy montage of images – the surface of a body of water shot from below, a child clutching at a dog – overlaid atop one another like transparencies on a light table.
Then a pair of bare feet, shod in sandals, walk briskly toward a camera, which retreats at the same pace to keep them in frame. The lens ponders these unidentified extremities just long enough to make you notice.
Finally the camera is stepped back to a more conventional distance to reveal a young man and a little boy marching along the edge of an expressway and onto a train. When the boy declares he’s hungry, the man rummages through the carriages’ empty seats looking for food the passengers have left behind.
Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) has taken charge of his son Sam (Armand Verdure) and is taking him from Belgium to his sister’s place in France. When they arrive, the strain between Alain (or Ali as he’s called) and Anna (Corinne Masiero) betrays her lack of trust as much as their shared poverty. She works as a cashier, and much of the household grocery bill is subsidized by expired food items she takes from work.
Anna lives in a town called Antibes, which is known for the economic disparities of its residents. The town has a Marineland, for instance, where middle class folk pay money to watch orca (aka killer whales) obey the commands of their trainers to leap in formation and do air-borne backflips in return for a handful of fish.
Enter Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), Marineland’s head orca trainer. Ali, and the audience, first encounters her lying on her back on a nightclub dance floor, dropped by a shot in the face from one of the establishment’s gentleman customers.
Ali has just become a club bouncer and, for reasons connected to his keen interest in getting laid as much as any concern for Steph’s wobbly legs, he drives her home. He invites himself in to get some ice for his busted knuckles and, glimpsing Steph’s blissless relationship with some Frenchman, leaves her his telephone number in case she needs his help.
The story should end here. The next day Steph goes to work with her team, performing their dance-like ritual with a tankful of huge carnivorous mammals.
The camera’s lingering, close-up shots of Cotillard’s face – a complex map of concentration, competence and boredom – are interspersed with flashes of movement from the audience, the trainers and, most of all, the orca themselves. The routine proceeds with clocklike precision, until Steph finds herself out of place when a hungry orca performs an out-of-water trick a little too soon.
A couple of months later, she calls on Ali for help.
“Rust and Bone” is screening in Beirut as part of the European Film Festival. It had its world premiere at the Cannes film festival, not far from Antibes’ Marineland, where it was nominated for the Palme D’Or.
The film did take the top prize at the London BFI film festival a couple of months back, where the jury praised Audiard’s “unique [filmic] handwriting – made up of music, montage, writing, photography, sound, visual design and acting.”
It’s easy to agree with the jury’s assessment of the filmmaker’s skill – reinforced by that of cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (who also shot Audiard’s “A Prophet”) and film editor Juliette Welfling – and its depiction of “Rust and Bone” as “a film full of heart, violence and love.”
Impressive as Audiard & Co.’s visual language is, it would all be froth without the writing from which it hangs. One strength of this writing is that the impact of its two central characters does not strain credibility. For this the filmmaker can thank the changing face of Europe, which has helped create the picturesque economic dislocation that his camera captures so well.
More affecting from a narrative perspective is the skill with which the collision of Steph and Ali’s intensely emotional stories is engineered to avoid an explosion of sentimental schmaltz.
When Steph reconnects with Ali a couple of months after her accident, he takes the wheelchair-bound woman to the beach.
“I feel like taking a dip,” he says immediately. “You?”
She shakes her head.
“Why not? No bathing suit?”
“Are you blind?” she asks, aghast.
Ali shrugs and walks to the sea. After a spell she whistles him back, deciding to take swim after all.
Steph does so despite her, for some ghastly, disability.
In the writers’ hands, Ali’s adolescent indifference to Steph’s feelings deflects a moment of high melodrama, making it a tool for plot and character development. Ali and Steph’s negotiation of their first sex act works similarly, but with an added dash of humor.
Yet there is an aesthetic flaw in this film, not at its heart but at its extremities, one that leaves you wondering about the source of Audiard’s inspiration and how much the screenwriters departed from it.
The source text of “Rust and Bone” is a short story collection of the same title by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. The screenplay adapted two of the collection’s stories – one of a bereft whale trainer, the other about a boxer in decline.
Evidently Audiard (who co-wrote the screenplay) took necessary liberties when splicing the two stories – changing the sex of the protagonist in one story, for instance.
Writing about Davidson’s writing, U.S. novelist Chuck Palahniuk, himself a veteran of fiction-to-film adaptation, praises the smudged “line between comedy and horror, cruelty and mercy” he finds in the collection, which is also evident in Audiard’s adaptation.
Then, in its final act, Audiard’s refreshing, compelling, anti-sentimental depiction of two stories of emotional and physical trauma takes an abrupt, feel-good U-turn. You may feel the characters have been betrayed rather than saved. But Davidson’s original collection is still out there to be read.
“Rust and Bone” will screen at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Friday at 10:30 p.m. The European Film Festival continues until Dec. 9. For more information, please call 01-204-080.