CANNES 2012: Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE

CANNES 2012: Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE

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Jacques Audiard only knows how to pummel us. The French director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet wouldn’t know a subtle musical cue or composition if it were staring him in the face.  Though such rigorous formalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Audiard’s overtly heightened style is problematic because it reflects a lack of interest in mining deeper territory and a thoughtless flair for obvious symbolism. This is a cinema of blunt force trauma, of momentary awe, and all the stylized violence and lens flares merely reinforce a lack of heft in the gracefully repulsive scenarios Audiard creates.

Rust and Bone, Audiard’s latest study in physical weathering and emotional repression, only further confirms his ongoing obsession with surfaces: skin, sunlight, ice, blood, and cement are all key motifs in the story of a perpetually violent ex-fighter who develops an unexpected relationship with a former Orca trainer recently crippled by a devastating accident. Both characters are deformed, one externally and the other internally, but they share an unspoken bond created by mutual rage and momentary quiet. In many instances their two experiences overlap, most strangely when the brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is resurrected during a brutal street brawl after watching the legless Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) use her newly acquired prosthetic limbs to walk toward him. In typical Audiard fashion, the inane reversal of fortune is heightened to the point of melodrama in super slow motion.

Strangely, the central relationship between Ali and Stéphanie, often the most interesting thing about Rust and Bone, is often left in limbo as Audiard cuts away to a number of convoluted subplots involving minor fringe characters. Lingering behind are many fascinating moments, as these two tortured characters attempt to communicate through instinct despite a lot of emotional static. There’s a stunning sun-drenched sequence where Ali carries the legless Stéphanie into the ocean, letting her swim freely as he watches from the beach. Wading in the shallow waters, Stéphanie takes off her shirt and swims into the current, regaining a sense of empowerment. Her transition in this scene feels organic, as opposed to being a product of jarring aesthetics.

For both characters, freedom is often found when engaging with nature. Rust and Bone’s defining image is of Stéphanie standing in front of a giant glass tank, her small body nearly overwhelmed by the giant Orca engulfing the frame. Her tender interactions with the whale hint at the character study Rust and Bone could have been. If sunlight and water allows Stéphanie the opportunity to realize her own self-worth, piercing ice enacts a similar wake-up call for Ali. But the film’s shameless denouement, a snowy set-piece far from the film’s primary setting in the south of France, bungles the chance for his character to attain the same level of resonance. Unlike Stéphanie, Ali’s coming-of-age moment is screenwriting 101, and steeped in sentimentality.

“We continue but not like animals.” There’s admirable resolve in Stéphanie’s telling words to Ali after their first sexual dalliance, but whether or not he understands (or cares) is ultimately a moot point. Throughout Rust and Bone, there’s never any doubt that Audiard will propel his protagonist to the finish line, a little more broken and but all the wiser, cliché be damned.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Yousry Nasrallah’s AFTER THE BATTLE

CANNES 2012: Yousry Nasrallah’s AFTER THE BATTLE

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Governments are inherently evil. Commoners are redeemable imbeciles. Academics are clueless do-gooders. These cookie-cutter generalizations about character motivation and social institutions define Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle, an abrasively loud melodrama set in post-Mubarak Egypt that equates dramatic importance with collective self-pitying. It takes a special kind of dud to make the immediacy of the Arab Spring seem trite and spineless, especially since the ripples from that massive uprising still reverberate throughout the Middle East. But that’s exactly what After the Battle achieves. It expresses nearly every theme, emotion, and motif through an onslaught of extreme verbal posturing.  Considering the consistency with which arguments crystallize out of nowhere in After the Battle, one wonders if Nasrallah thinks the louder his characters get, the more relevance their words will have. Talk about beating a dead horse.

Speaking of horses, the film opens with viral video footage taken during “The Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir Square from March of 2011, in which riders on horses and camels crashed through the crowds of protesters, smacking them with whips. One of the assailants is ripped from his saddle, only to be beaten repeatedly by a gathering of bystanders. This raw prologue successfuly establishes After the Battle as a movie of the moment. But that vitality sours when Nasrallah centers the narrative on the downed horseman, a gullible tourist guide from Nazlat named Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), who has become an outcast for opposing the revolution.  When an NGO doctor named Rim (Meena Chalaby) takes an interest in Mahmoud’s conflicted back-story, After the Battle uses their lifeless tryst to explore relevant issues of class and gender still affecting the Egyptian social landscape.

The connection between interpersonal relationships and national trauma fails to gain any traction in After the Battle, mostly because Nasrallah only scratches the surface of his country’s ongoing identity crisis. He simply mixes volatile Youtube footage with fictional dramatic scenarios through amateurish cross-cutting, creating a toothless docudrama whuch is at its most artificial when it tries to be edgy, pointed, and immediate. Juxtaposition like this only reinforces the typical stereotypes perpetrated by Hollywood for years. The region may be different, but all the tropes are the same.

If the high volume of After the Battle’s emotional theatrics doesn’t kill you, its incessant self-pity certainly will.  One particularly heinous example comes during a knock-down drag-out fight between Mahmoud and his wife, who yell aimlessly back and forth with their children sitting uncomfortably in the other room. Mahmoud's weepy emotional breakdown at the end of the argument is altogether unconvincing and unearned. After the Battle becomes one big self-serving metaphor during its painfully blunt final moments, when a bloodied Mahmoud envisions himself climbing a pyramid. The wide shot slowly tilts upward, away from his small figure, lingering on the massive distance he still must cover to reach the pyramid's top. The multi-dimensional dynamics of political and social transition in Egypt deserve something better than this kind of one-note symbolism, but Nasrallah, at least in this film, seems incapable of delivering anything else.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

CANNES 2012: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

nullMoonrise Kingdom is a great success, both within the context of Wes Anderson's body of work and as a work unto itself. Initially, however, its Wes- Anderson-y-ness is almost off-putting. At the start of this very mature children’s romance about two pre-teens, the camera tracks through almost every room of a house; the separate but equal nature of each of the house’s various inhabitants is matched with a song from a child’s record, explaining how an orchestra's sections come together to perform a piece by British composer Benjamin Britten.

The aforementioned sequence is a table setting scene, establishing the film’s main conceit. Similarly, in successive scenes, Anderson’s mise en scene characteristically consists of various objects which stick out like sore thumbs, such as different types of fishing tackle hanging on a wall, or old mailboxes arranged on a shelf behind a telephone switchboard). These objects draw attention to themselves, but, in Anderson’s eyes, they function as parts of a whole. Thankfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (CQ) demonstrate how difference creates mass unity as the film goes along. No matter how discontent Anderson's latest film’s protagonists might feel, they are always in concert with the people who care for them.

Moonrise Kingdom is about the cascading repercussions of young love in the small community of New Penzance Island. Sam (Jared Gilman), a talented but “emotionally disturbed” member of the island's Khaki Scout troop, loves Suzy (Kara Hayward), a self-possessed but “troubled” singer, the only girl in her family’s brood of five children. Suzy’s emotionally estranged parents, Laura and Walt (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and Scoutmaster Ward (Ed Norton) are beside themselves when they learn that their respective charges have fled. But the search for Sam and Suzy eventually involves almost everyone on New Penzance, including a local Island policeman (Bruce Willis) and a mysterious narrator (Bob Balaban). Every character is an equally important member of Anderson’s wild bunch, even if not all of them are created equally (as in the case of one poor eye-patch-wearing Khaki scout).

That being said, Anderson and Coppola do fully explore the group dynamic aspect of Suzy and Sam’s relationship. Scenes like the one where Laura and Walt talk obliquely about their marriage woes nicely illustrate how it’s possible for Sam and Suzy to be alone together and also with their various friends and surrogate family members.

Anderson typically champions his protagonists’ eccentricities as the means by which they define themselves. But his characters are also often unified by the understanding that excluding each other is pointless, as everybody brings something to the group’s collective table. Even the crueler Khaki scouts learn this lesson in a hilarious scene built around a polemic from a pint-sized (former) bully.

The use of song cues, especially those from Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and Camille Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, subtlely establishes that characters defined by their difference and unhappiness are always an integral part of the film’s whole. In fact, the characters' quirks and unhappiness only further embellish Anderson’s comedy of power dynamics. 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.