Quite coincidentally, the three films I managed to catch at this year's BFI London Film Festival -
Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, Joachim Lafosse's Our Children and Leonardo Di Constanzo's The Interval - between them take a microscope to contemporary 'family' life. Whether biological, surrogate or criminal, the families on show in these movies - all European, all leaning towards the arthouse end of the spectrum - offer some indication of the pressures felt across the generations, genders and social classes in the modern world. The ties that bind these disparate characters together more often the cause of anguish rather than comfort. Not without their flaws, some bigger than others, Rust and Bone, Our Children and The Interval overwhelmingly portray a pessimistic outlook on modern life, but there is some hope amidst the gloom.
After firmly establishing himself as one of France's, if not Europe's, leading directors, Jacques Audiard returns to our screens after a three year absence with the engrossing if, at times, credibility stretching drama, Rust and Bone. Expectations were high for Audiard's sixth feature following the awards winning The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, and Audiard is clearly directing with confidence, enthusiasm and a finely honed auteur's eye in his latest venture. Starring Marion Cotillard (as hot a property in the film world as there currently is), and Matthais Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone throws its two central protagonists, Stephanie and Ali, into a turbulent, offbeat and touching relationship that encompasses issues of parental responsibility, disability and economic survival on the margins of society.
Ali, a roughly hewn bull of a man, finds himself staying under his sister's roof, a sibling he shares a fraught relationship with, with the son he has previously barely taken an interest in now in his less than adept care. Eking out a living in security and then as a bare knuckle boxer, Ali's chance encounter with the seductive but troubled Stephanie, when he escorts her home after an incident she's involved in at a nightclub, proves to be the beginning of an emotional, spiritual and romantic journey that sees as many crushing lows as it does ecstatic highs.
Audiard largely avoids sentimentality and worthiness, an achievement of note given that a major plot point revolves around a work accident, as bizarre as it is horrible, that leaves Stephanie a double leg amputee. Her job as a whale trainer, the cause of her catastrophic loss, brings nature - its forces and its taming - into symbolic play. There's an earthy feel about Rust and Bone; physicality, flesh and the body (it's power and the loss of it), keeping the narrative's flights of metaphorical fancy anchored to the ground they are periodically in danger of escaping. Two sides of a coin battered and tossed about by life's experiences, Ali and Stephanie undergo opposing changes during the course of the movie's two hour running time. Stephanie toughening up and Ali discovering a hitherto untapped strain of nurturing compassion, with both of them adapting to fluctuating fortunes with the spirit of survival they share as a common bond.
A bold and unique attempt to de-schmaltz what is in essence a familiar tale of love against the odds, and one that would fall apart in a lesser director's hands, Rust and Bone does stray into improbable territory towards its denouement, a climactic incident straining a little too hard to make its symbolic point. In the end, though, Audiard's vision of the coming together of an ad hoc family is likely to linger in the memory; its emotional pull as strong as the composition of its imagery.
To Be Continued...