Rust And Bone
Oscar-winning French star Marion Cotillard sure is something, isn’t she? "Rust and Bone", which features her latest performance in her native tongue, pretty much qualifies her as one of the finest actresses working today. As a trainer/performer at a SeaLand type attraction, she starts off as a beautiful independent-in-a-show-offish-way woman, going out to clubs and flirting with men to assert her will over her boyfriend. Twenty minutes into the film (spoiler, sort-of), she’s had her legs ripped off by a killer whale and is going it alone. An hour in, she’s having a passionate sexual affair. By the finale, she’s gleefully grinning at scenes of bloody carnage. And she pulls off every moment.
Sound like a ridiculous yarn? It is. Cotillard stars as Stephanie, who prances along to pop music while feeding fish to whales for ’MarineLand’ audiences by day, and goes partying (with sometimes violent results) by night. She also meets Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a good-looking thug that brutally beats his son, works mindlessly as a bouncer, and generally seems like he walked out of the wrong end of a Dardenne Brothers movie. Yes, this is another entry into the European Cinema of Sadness (see: Haneke, Michael, or Innaritu, Alejandro,) so don’t expect things to go too well for our star couple. It’s as if they’re in two different movies, which at first, seems an interesting idea. Unfortunately, only one of their stories is believable.
You see, director Jacques Audiard is hardly as convincing as his ingénue. His treatment is all over the place; he never even tries to mold the sequences together. Marion seamlessly glides through her myriad set-ups; but Audiard tackles each of his with a detached grandiosity. He starts out looking at fractured father-son relationships with a faux-Malick abstraction, then eventually moves onto Hitchcockian suspense-style sequences (the whale-bite,) and hits every different approach in between. It’s all very stimulating, but it never once feels like anything resembling cohesion.
He has something to say here about "domesticating brutes" - about how Marion fails with her whales, and is perhaps failing again with Alain, who mindlessly beds other women in front of her and quickly turns to underground street fighting as a profession - but it’s lost in a muddle of sentimentality and show-off aesthetics. He’s always doing something with his camera (slow-motion, split focus, cutting in music of Katy Perry, he does it all) but it never feels earned. He fetishizes flabs of sweat, gushing wounds, and blood particles parsing through water. But his film isn’t as much about the perils of flesh as it is the emotions connected to them, and he doesn’t capture the latter aspect nearly as well as the former.
Luckily, he has Marion to save him from his all-over-the-place construction and occasionally-exploitive stylings (one late-in-the-game sequence, which leaves a child in serious danger in the background while an adult meddles carelessly in front of the frame, can be seen coming from a mile away and had me writing "cheap, cheap, cheap" in my notebook.) "Rust and Bone" wallows in darkness for two hours, and much of it feels artificial, self-conscious, and perhaps even (dare-I-use-that-dreaded-word). pretentious. The Alain sequences feel like a bad parody of the ’worst life ever’ cinema that’s spun off the graceful works of Bresson or the Dardennes into a full-fledged genre all its own. He isn’t even a person; he’s a construct of every terrible human trait.
This is why it’s nothing short of astounding that I believe it when Marion looks at him with not just lust, but love, in her eyes. She takes her character not just to the expected emotional heights, but also to intriguing, almost-creepy proportions seemingly left out of the script. Overseeing the street fights, she cringes, but then a horrible grin emerges. She’s a damaged woman, and maybe a little more damage is what she needs. It’s a flourish and an idea much more provocative than anything in Audiard’s narrative. It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere look that twists your interpretation of an entire movie in a different direction. It’s the work of a great actress.