This was the opening film at the 26th Leeds International Film Festival. A winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the screening was a late addition to the programme. This probably explains why the Town Hall venue was less than half-full for a new film by one of France’s most talented and interesting filmmakers. There was also a slight delay whilst the staff set up the digital projector and sound system – time well spent because I found the acoustics better that I remembered from previous years.
Essentially this is relatively typical Audiard fare (thoughtfully dedicated to another fine French filmmaker) – the lives of people set at the margins of society. However, it is rather unlike his recent successes such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrèté, 2005) and A Prophet (Un prophète, 2009). Whilst a damaged hero, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), is at the centre of the story, romance is a much more noticeable strand. Indeed the female protagonist Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is arguably the emotional centre of the film. Both actors give fine, sensitive performances, which are among the most effective aspects of the film.
The production values are equally good. The anamorphic cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine is impressive, with some very fine montages of light on sea (as with the opening shot), foliage and even the less aesthetic facades of urban life. The film was shot on Red digital camera, presumably with 4k facility. As in earlier films the editing, down to Juliete Welfling, works both to position characters and events but also places them in a believable but also evocative enrolment. A good touch is the cut from Marineland where Stéphanie works to Ali jogging as ambulances race pass. Alexander Desplat’s score is sometimes very noticeable, but effective and there is a great mixture of popular songs on the soundtrack. Audiard’s direction of his talented team shows how the auteur depends on the creativity of a larger group.
However there is no doubt that his films do offer a ‘personal vision’. And what makes his films so interesting is his ability to fashion (partly as a co-scriptwriter) film stories that address personal and social issues in a very distinctive fashion. From this point of view Rust and Bone is his weakest film for some time. One is conscious of the contrivance of the plot for both melodramatic and emotional moments. Thus is a key relationship in the film between Ali and his son Sam (Armand Verdure). So at a climatic moment in the film there is a serious accident, which requires a frenzied almost masochistic rescue by the father. I was conscious at this point that there was a simpler method available, but one that was less dramatic.
Another development in the story is an accident that leads to an amputation and the later the fitting of artificial limbs. This is done fairly impressively in the film, including frequent shots of the amputated limbs. I am not sure how this was done technically, presumably through some digital technique? But it was so well done that I actually found the perfection distracting.
But the film is never less than absorbing, and at times powerfully emotional. It also includes scene of disturbing violence: another frequent strand in Audiard’s films. In this case it is bare-knuckle fighting: visiting the strata of the lumpen-proletariat, another frequent Audiard depiction. It is out the travails of the fight arena, and of the major accidents in the film, that the protagonist’s relationship develops. And it is in the developments within the central relationships, including with the son Sam, which the film works its way to a resolution and redemption.
The resolution does feel a little pat but it is worth noting that it includes a dry, detached voice-over that provides the sort of ambiguity to the resolution that is also present in earlier Audiard films.
In an interview in Sight & Sound (November 2012) Audiard referred to his pleasure in older Hollywood films by Tod Browning, including The Unknown, 1927) starring Lon Chaney. “They made a sort of expressionist cinema that speaks about the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s (and the films often featured physical disabilities). I wanted to try and find a form of melodrama that could talk about today’s economic crisis, in which the setting of a Marineland (where Stéphanie works in the film) would be like a circus.”
This is a revealing comment on the film, and is interesting when one reflects on his other recent films. In fact my memory of The Unknown is that it was implausible but packed an immense emotional kick. I think Audiard’s new film achieves something similar.
I should finally note that the screening was followed by the Gala Opening of the Festival: the film, the USA feature Argo. This apparently sees Ben Affleck rescuing ‘stranded Americans in Iran’. Whilst I was happy to see Audiard symbolically revisit the 1920s, the prospect of Yanks revisiting and rewriting the 1980s was a little too much.