Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Film Review: Rust and Bone

The French actress Marion Cotillard has perhaps the most expressive face in the history of movies. The broad cheekbones and low, heavy jawline set the stage for whatever she wants to convey. Her mouth is small, but it can seem a mile wide when she grins, and once you've seen that smile, you can feel the tension when she reins it back. And then there's her most extraordinary feature: those wide-set, heavy-lidded, pale-blue eyes. They're like twin seas of emotion, and whether they bathe you in warmth, or scald you with suffering, you cannot look away.

Cotillard's face is a marvelous instrument, and she plays it expertly. No actor working demonstrates a higher level of technical control, or a better command of nuance. Her masterstroke as a performer is her use of the insight that people turn inward when they feel pain. Most actors are quite demonstrative when playing characters in turmoil. It's understandable; they'd be a dead spot on the screen otherwise. Cotillard, though, invariably goes blank. But it doesn't seem rooted in a commitment to verisimilitude. It's more like an awareness that the sight of her bold features emptied of emotion is haunting. She builds on that by letting, with striking precision, the blankness crack with growing flickers of hurt, anger, or sadness. Her most powerful moments can cut one to the soul.

My choice for Cotillard's finest showcase is Jacques Audiard's 2012 film Rust and Bone. Most of the picture is set in Antibes, a French Mediterranean resort town, and it follows Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an aspiring boxer, as he tries to build a life there for himself and his young son. He meets Stephanie (Cotillard) while working as a club bouncer. She's a killer-whale trainer at a local theme park, and shortly thereafter, during a park show, a whale jumps onto the trainers' platform and collapses it. The injuries she sustains lead to both her legs being amputated below the knee. After weeks of depression, she decides on a whim to call Ali. Their evolving relationship--friendship, friendship with benefits, a business partnership, and ultimately perhaps more--gradually transforms both their lives.

The picture may sound shamelessly soapy, and on a certain level it is, but Audiard is anything but cynical about the story. He strives to make it as vivid for the audience as possible. The staging, camerawork, and editing are as kinetic and headlong as an action film. Audiard also emphasizes the physicality of his two stars, and he keeps one acutely aware that their characters' relationship is primarily based on sex. He builds the story by dramatizing their growing awareness that it's becoming more than that. The plotting may be a little stale, but Audiard's treatment is anything but.

Schoenaerts' role is something of a juggling act, and he manages to make Ali sympathetic despite the character's self-centered inability to think in terms of anything but the immediate moment. Ali can be wonderfully kind, but he can also be recklessly violent and appallingly cruel. The character may seem like a lug at times, but Schoenaerts keeps one conscious that Ali is more than that, and he is never less than compelling. Cotillard, of course, is a wonder. She plays Stephanie's depression and emotional flowering beautifully. In her best scene, she provides a lovely spin on her signature effect. Stephanie sits on the balcony of her apartment one morning and begins miming her routine of directional gestures for the killer whales. She gives herself over to the movements, and her face goes blank. Emotions eventually reassert themselves, but they're not sadness or pain. She finishes the routine looking almost beatifically happy. The killer whales are in the past for Stephanie, but the joy they brought will always be a part of her. It may be the most exquisite note in any Cotillard performance.

Audiard matches Cotillard's artistry in short order. Stephanie returns to the theme park and goes to the tank holding the whale. The animal swims up to her, and behind the glass, she begins directing it. The whale moves in accord with her gestures. One can see they still have their bond, and that she forgives the animal for crippling her. She then gestures for the whale to swim away, and it does. It's a lovely allegory for bringing closure to a bygone period of one's life, and Audiard presents it perfectly.

These are only two of the scenes that have compelled me to watch Rust and Bone over and over again. Another is when, during their first encounter after her accident, Ali takes Stephanie out of her apartment and over to the beach across the street. He eventually takes her into the water, and she realizes she can still swim. It's her first rediscovery of the joys of life, and it's exhilarating to watch. The picture has beautiful small moments, too, such as when Stephanie allows Ali's young son to touch her prosthetic legs. I even love the hokier bits, such as when Ali, about to lose a fighting match, looks up to see Stephanie watching, and finds the resolve to beat his opponent. The movie never fails to take wing and soar.