CANNES – As a general rule, it should be a bit further into Cannes, when the combination of punishing onscreen themes and depleted reserves of sleep have battered down all defences, that I have my first involuntary cry of the festival. And as a general rule, it should be several lifetimes before the instigator of such a reaction is Katy Perry’s plastic empowerment anthem “Firework,” with a wheelchair-bound young woman playing conductor to its ersatz emotional swell.
“Rust and Bone” (B+) a remarkable exercise in brute sentimentality and unwashed romance from French genre artisan Jacques Audiard, is not a film with much use for general rules: awash with aesthetic and narrative decisions that scratch at the boundaries of human empathy and simple good taste, it’s the rare Croisette provocation that invites polarized responses by flirting with convention, even cliché, rather than transgression. In no other context could the Wonderbread pop stylings of Ms. Perry sound more subversive.
It’s apt that one of “Rust and Bone”‘s most electric scenes should seek to dignify disposable Top 40 fodder, since the film as a whole seems exactingly crafted to redeem an entire cinematic subgenre that has too long been submerged by its own least distinguished projects. The words “disability drama” are enough to prompt an unmasked groan from many a wary film fan, conjuring as they do drippy recollections of triumph-of-the-will awards bait, much of it unawarded, or soft-lit, true-life TV movies starring Lindsay Wagner as somebody’s mother. But they rarely promise a film engaging with the ugly, dramatically seething actualities of human damage, an awareness that hisses from Audiard’s film with alternating fury and euphoria.
Everybody, and indeed every body, is broken in Audiard’s chosen working-class corner of the Cote d’Azur, where Marion Cotillard’s disaffected Sea World animal trainer and Matthias Schoenaert’s shiftless, lowering security worker meet following an altercation at the nightclub where he works — her bloodied nose and his swollen knuckles mordant omens of a relationship that they can’t yet know will be founded on rolling physical setbacks and recoveries. By their second encounter, she will have lost both legs, perhaps to an Orca whale, in a freak work accident; he’ll have turned to bare-knuckle fighting as a means of supporting his motherless young son, himself no stranger to the sting of his father’s palm.
She’s the medically disabled one, but neither is a fully functioning human being; as she gradually rebuilds her body, he finds repeated new ways to break down his. In Hollywood script-manual logic, that pat irony would invite mutual completion between one and the other. In Audiard’s more hardened human universe, their sex-led partnership destroys as much connective tissue as it forges; few films trading in equivalent subject matter have mapped out the enervating back-and-forth of the recovery process with quite such sensory candor. (The actors, it hardly needs saying, are superb — particularly Schoenaerts, hungrier and more reactive than he was in his impressive breakthrough in 2011 Oscar nominee “Bullhead.”) Physical sensation is a driving storytelling aid here, magnified by the tactile floridity of Audiard’s filmmaking: cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s blunt, shoal-hued compositions are wired with glittering natural light and warm flashes of skin and blood, as the film’s song-heavy sound mix seemingly checks in and out of an echoing headspace.
Few filmmakers are quite as adept at conveying not just a character’s sense of self, but their immediate experience of their environment. It’s this kind of grandly wrought specificity that keeps “Rust and Bone” from tipping into familiar sentiment even as scene after scene lends itself to visual and verbal platitude — and as the script’s occasionally ungainly subplots reveal all too obviously its adaptation from a collection of short stories. As the narrative reaches its emotional crescendos, capped by a staggering scene at a frozen lake than inspired gasps, sobs and eye-rolls in seemingly equal measure at this morning’s screening, the unfinished details of its construction matter very little indeed. Some will inevitably cry manipulation, as if eliciting such strength of feeling in a viewer could or should be anything but.
Would that anyone could accuse “After the Battle” (D+) the lone African or Middle Eastern film in an internationally spottier-than-usual Competition lineup, of successfully harvesting sentiment. Instead, Yousry Nasrallah’s shouty, inert, indefatigably earnest drama of class, gender and societal conflicts in the wake of last year’s Arab Spring conflicts in Egypt has justifiably little faith in its routinely ill-placed digital camera’s ability to capture political subtext. Instead, it resorts to the trusty alternative of having characters spout helpful paragraphs of text out loud — an awful lot of it, given that the film feigns to see both sides of the fallout that followed the fatality-stained Battle of the Camels in February 2011. There, a group of working-class horsemen charged into a crowd of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, setting in motion a chain of conversations that led to the dissolution of the Mubarak regime.
With the topicality of the events in question representing catnip to most festival programmers, one rather hoped “After the Battle” would demonstrate other, less cynical reasons for its presence here. But with the level of its visual storytelling and rhetorical content hovering perilously around the daytime-TV level, Cannes selectors clearly had their diplomat hats on when admitting this one into Competition. Whether or not it’s too soon to tackle these events head-on is a moot point; Nasrallah clearly thinks it is, which is why he laces his vague, boiled-down observations thereof through an insipid, scarcely credible will-they-won’t-they romance between one of the socially reviled horsemen and an educated female NGO worker distributing handouts to him and his peers — a dynamic that could yield rich insights about shifting moral and social hierarchies in Egypt if they could only stop talking about that very thing.
“You’re always finding political solutions to personal problems,” one character chides another at one point. The same could be said for Nasrallah and Omar Shama’s didactic, thuddingly literal script, though when the personal talk begins (“You look like someone with a weight you can’t carry or unload, like a donkey”), it becomes clear that political solutions may be the way forward for these characters. Nasrallah’s most cinematic flourish is the insertion of cantering dressage horses into every other frame, an uncertain visual metaphor that does, at least, reassuringly suggest he’s as bored of his colorless human mouthpieces as we are. Bring on the empty horses, indeed.
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