Rust and Bone – Jacques Audiard’s film on Melodrama. (film review)
When Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain decided to make a film based on Craig Davidson’s book of short stories Rust and Bone, it wasn’t for the plot, or even the characters. It was for the intensity of lives blown out of proportion by drama and accident. There was a complex relationship between hard lives and the physical body, a connection between poverty and violence that made them want to use the stories. Important aspects like a whale trainer, a motherless child, a boxing father and struggling in poor conditions came from the book, but there was no love story and no primary female character.
Please note – this review contains spoilers.
This positive use of melodrama fascinated me. It lies at the heart of what makes Rust and Bone an exceptional film. There is a relationship between the melodrama we create to authenticate our lives and the melodrama we see authenticating fiction on the big screen. Following on from this idea, Audiard uses a pared down script, a simple plot line and minimalist acting as framework for the cinematography that takes responsibility for carrying the messages of melodrama. It’s a style of filming Audiard and Bidegain have called “expressionist”. In this way a pared down natural realism is posited against its opposite, amplified melodrama, surreal imagery and heightened experience. Take the moment where Stephanie (Marian Cotillard) is in an accident that will cost her legs. The accident is over very quickly. There are flashes of a giant whale landing wrong, sets and props breaking, the horror on a woman’s face, and then and underwater shot staring up at chunks of the set crashing into the water and a floating body with blood pouring from it. The shots are surreal – just a string of images we make of what we can, in many ways as beautiful as they are tragic. Yet in the next shot, Stephanie laying in the hospital bed still sleeping, we see where the undercover bump of her legs stops and we realize she has lost both of her legs. At this point, we know the story is about to begin.
Director Sidney Lumet said in a discussion of his 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, “In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story.” In other words, it is the circumstances that shape and form the person. Since the rise of Soap Operas which really ‘came to power’ in a commercial sense in the 1970’s, melodrama has come to be identified with a trite cliché and on the whole poorly developed characters and scripts. Audiard uses the cliché here but pares down the reality so much that the contrast saves the melodrama from the obvious problems. Characters didn’t have to ‘speak’ their pain and their difficulties. Even the love story that is at the center of the plot is so pared down we almost never see love outside of a kind of dependent passion. It is intensely erotic, but the frustration in Stephanie as she tries to give voice and words to what is going on between them (a brilliant scene) is something we all feel as we watch these people. We know from the power of the filming that the pair are in love. We have no confidence that they will gather up the resources within themselves to ground that love into something real. This is the essence of the tension at the heart of the romantic conflict.
“As soon as you put a man or a woman in front of a lens, it becomes a sensual experience. In a way we can say the history of movies is the history of the eroticisation of faces. The epitome of masculinity can be defined by Gary Cooper in City Streets, while there is nothing more beautiful or sexual than the face of Miriam Hopkins in Rouben Mamoulian’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Jacques Audiard
The above holds another key to the success of Rust and Bone that on the surface appears to be an anomaly: that is we love these characters even though they are horrible people. Particularly in the case of Ali (Matthias Schoenbaerts) a character who behaves in an abusive fashion toward everyone. Life is tough, so you better be tough seems to be his mantra. Because he cares so deeply we care deeply for him, despite his often appalling behaviour. Interestingly, all the characters in the film – including his young son – feel the same way. Part of the affection we have permission to feel for Ali comes from his willingness to allow his circumstances to shape him, but it also comes (again) from Audiard’s way of revealing Ali to us. Audiard will shape Ali for us by event, rather than the actor talking or acting his way into our hearts. We are sitting on the edge of our seats by the end of the film as Ali faces his final, climactic tragedy, because we sense he is near breaking point and he can still go either way. Audiard seems to say, sometimes life’s problems happen, not because there has been too many tragedies, but because there have been too few.
“I know that with male characters on the big screen, there’s something fascinating that happens in the mind of an audience,” says Audiard.
Audiard works well with male characters, and he deliberately wanted a woman at the center of this narrative, even though (again) he was initially attracted to a story that did not contain a female, let alone a female protagonist. Audiard works with the entire creature when he is faced with an actor. Stephanie is not just Stephanie the woman: She is also Marion Cotillard playing Stephanie. Audiard wanted an enormously famous actress, so we can have a deeper experience of her as an amputee. Removing the legs of Stephanie is powerful because we all know Marion Cotillard – we have seen her many times, and we have an internal image of her. We know her with legs. When her legs are removed, Audiard is taking advantage of our internal image of this woman. It gives us a deeper experiential shock to the images of a naked female amputee.
Key to this part of the process is Audiard’s scriptwriter, Thomas Bidegain, who worked on A Prophet and also acts as the director’s unofficial translator. “The way we work is to talk about what the film should be, the kind of film we want to do. We were coming out of A Prophet – a jail movie – no women, no space, no light, no love. So the idea we had was to do a love story.”
And there is a great deal of space and light in this film, with the focus being very much on the sea and the sun. I have watched so many films recently that deal with melodrama – Fassbinder particularly – but it was very interesting to see a competent director handle the subject in today’s culture.