Rouille et d’os, De (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), having had experience in boxing and kickboxing, gets a job as a bouncer in a nightclub. A fight breaks out between a man and a woman, the former calling her a whore as the latter ends up on middle of the floor with a bleeding face. Concerned for her safety, Ali drives Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) to her place, only to be met with a scowling and jealous boyfriend. Ali gives her his phone number just in case she needs someone to talk to. They will meet again some time later when Stéphanie no longer has her legs.
Though not the most tightly constructed drama, “De rouille et d’os,” based on Craig Davidson’s short stories, is loyal to the fact that life is often messy and unbalanced. Sure, the story can be summed up and interpreted as an odd romance between a fighter and an amputee, but the circumstances that surround them demand more urgency on the gut level. It is more accurate to consider the film as a story about two people who happen to meet each other at the right time.
Stéph and Ali are interesting together as when they are apart. Emphasis is placed on Ali’s physicality, not just in the things he does, like pummeling someone’s face into bloody mush or using his limbs to knock an opponent off-balance, but also in his stature, how wide he is even when he is simply standing there. In contrast, Stéph, at least initially, underscores a lack of dominance. There is a frailty about her—an emotional and psychological withering—the anger, frustration, and denial she goes through after learning that both of her legs—and perhaps a chance to live a life of normalcy—are gone.
Because they are so different, when they are within physical reach of each other, it is a most fascinating concoction. It is almost as if they feed off one another’s strengths. The careful screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bigegain is key in allowing us to understand the mutualism between the characters without coming off trite. When Ali decides to help Stéph, we do not discover a layer of sensitivity in him but are simply reminded of it due to the early scenes. It is easy to forget someone’s softer side when the person seems most comfortable in violence. Meanwhile, when Stéph is more willing to accept what has happened to her, we are with her in her quiet victory.
The issue of sex is brought up eventually. Stéph wonders if “it,” her plumbing, still works. Naturally, Ali is willing to help out. There is a layer of amusement without touching upon comedy, a welcome change from the heaviness of their circumstances. We have seen Ali engage in sex with other women. He is rough, almost violent (or it seems violent) though in a different arena. Will that approach work for Stéph? Whether if it does or does not, how will their friendship change?
Clearly the point that “Rust and Bone,” directed by Jacques Audiard, wishes to address is that there is a life after losing an important part of us. It may not seem that way for a while but as rust invades metal and broken bone heals, time gives way for an opportunity. The protagonists’ lives are a series of ups and downs, but their story is one that we can choose to believe as hopeful.
Prophète, Un (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
Battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, De (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Jacques Audiard posed a classic nature versus nurture question about a man in his late twenties (Romain Duris) who wanted to remove himself from a life of crime and to recapture his talent in playing the piano. His time was torn on two fronts: his father (Niels Arestrup) who made dishonest real-estate deals and his piano lessons with a recent immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) who taught him discipline and how to relax. This film had an exceptional use of tone. The push-and-pull forces that the character experienced were often reflected by the music that we heard (electro versus classical) and the images we saw (indoors versus outdoors, night versus day, order versus chaos). Since the film spent equal time between each forces, I understood the character’s anger because nobody believed in him. When he would tell someone of his extracurricular activities, the person would imply that he was too old and he was no longer a talented pianist that he once was. Naturally, his anger was fueled and so did his need to prove that he was good enough. I immediately related with the things he went through so I knew that his biggest enemy was ultimately himself. Since he never received approval from his distant father who only contacted him for favors, he tried to look for approval from other people which involved him sleeping with other women (Mélanie Laurent, Aure Atika) and moving on just as quickly. The reviews I encountered made a point about the movie not really going anywhere and the ideas were much larger than the final product. I disagree because Tom’s journey wasn’t about but life-changing revelations provided by those who surrounded him. Although he tried to look for answers by looking at others, the ultimate lesson was looking inwards and realizing that he had to love himself whether he still had the talent or otherwise. I thought the film was thoughtful about its arguments without spoon-feeding its audiences critical information and had a quiet power that moved me the more I thought about it afterwards. “De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté” or “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” could have easily been an obvious story of a man wanting redemption. Instead, it chose the more intelligent and sensitive path by allowing us to feel for, although not necessarily pity, the tortured protagonist. The film was also successful at asking us about our own lost potential.