dir. Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard’s favorite genre may be crime drama featuring flawed antiheroes, yet his best works are love stories, Rust and Bone (2012) and Read My Lips (2001), about marginalized women and men. Despite being ostensibly a two-hander, each tale is fundamentally the self-discovery narrative of a woman with a physical disability, who forges an unlikely romance with a hoodlum. Audiard directly associates the loss of bodily function with repressed desire, ultimately linking the unlocking of such desire to the protagonist’s symbolic rebirth. Subtlety has little place in the romances Audiard envisions. He draws on all the visual cues present in his scenes to accentuate the dominant emotions in them. It is not just an overt display of emotion, but the director uses the characters’ fluctuating states of mind precisely to shape the contours of his films.
Audiard’s melodramatic tendencies, evidenced by his fondness for alienated loners and for juxtaposing emotional highs and lows, inevitably privilege his heroine who’s literally lost a part of herself. Like Emmanuelle Devos’s ears and mouth in Read My Lips, Stéphanie’s (Cotillard) legs in fragmented close-up shots are a chief motif in Rust and Bone, making her story the film’s narrative spine. The earliest appearances of Stéphanie’s lower limbs unmistakably foreshadow the tragedy that soon follows; their later appearances—or their 20-minute absence and resumed presence (as prosthetics), to be exact—come at various stages of her rehabilitation and of her relationship with Ali (Schoenaerts). Naturally, most of the movie’s distinctively melodramatic moments belong to Stéphanie: the accident where she loses her legs is presented like a fantastic nightmare immediately following the festivity of the killer whale show; her point-of-view shots vividly convey the giddiness she feels as the sun dazzles her after she steps out of the pitch-dark room she has locked herself in.
The most intimate and poignant moment comes when Stéphanie, sitting on the veranda after her first sexual encounter with Ali, recalls her choreographed orca-show routine. For seconds, Audiard nearly mutes the scene and observes Cotillard in alternating close-up and medium shots, as she raises her arms, at first hesitantly, then a second time with more confidence. The outstretching and swinging of her arms, the energy emanating from those vigorous gestures, and finally, the same Katy Perry song that roared during her orca performance slowly rising in volume—all these combine marvelously to create one of Audiard’s truly melodramatic scenes. This scene is where, as Audiard said during his interview with the New York Times, “the dialogue becomes secondary,” as Cotillard’s acting redolent of the silent era shines through.
Cotillard’s facial features and performing style allow her to methodically represent the archetypal female in melodrama. Since La Vie en rose, a 2007 bio-pic of Edith Piaf by Olivier Dahan, the actress has often played women in crisis. Her portrayals of various women in different despondent situations have led her directors to compare her with her silent-era forebears. In the aforesaid interview, Audiard enthused, “she reminds me of a silent film actress. She is very, very expressive.” He is not the only admirer of the thespian’s style and grace on the screen. Her collaborator on The Immigrant (2013), James Gray once likened her to Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti. Since her Oscar-winning role as the legendary singer, almost all the directors Cotillard has worked with succumbed to the temptation to film her like Gish in D.W. Griffith’s cinema or Janet Gaynor in Frank Borzage’s. Even the Dardennes, who generally eschew anything that borders on sentimentalism or so-called melodrama, exploited the inherently dramatic features of Cotillard’s face to pit them against the brothers’ typical detachment and restraint in Two Days, One night (2014).
Rust and Bone couldn’t exist without its lead actress, but it could never be the love story that it is now without Schoenaerts. While Cotillard takes on her role with dignity, which otherwise would have been yet another helplessly victimized woman, Schoenaerts, as he already convincingly did in Oscar-nominated Bullhead (2011), channels vulnerable masculinity without slipping into macho clichés. Schoenaerts showcases his ingenuity by constructing a complicated man who, though unable to articulate even most basic emotions, let alone his deep insecurities, assumes an attitude neither judgmental nor overly cautious or sympathetic towards Stéphanie. In Schoenaerts’s most effectively melodramatic scene, Ali discovers his son, Sam, has fallen through ice right after their joyous reunion, and the joy suddenly gives way to a sense of impending doom. But in another, and final, dramatic turnaround, Sam survives, bringing the three together as a new family. This last sequence is a fitting end to Audiard’s sun-filled melodrama about the woman and man for whom we come to deeply care.