WHAT does it mean to be a man? It sounds like the first line of one of those molto pretentious perfume ads, the latest of which features Brad Pitt banging on about his "journey". It's enough to make a stone blush.
For an infinitely superior answer, turn instead to Rust and Bone, the latest drama from French director Jacques Audiard. While Pitt and his perfume ad ilk are the boy bands of male reasoning, the One Directions and The Wanteds, Audiard is the Dylan, the Cohen, the business.
The helmer of The Beat that My Heart Skipped, a blistering, twisty, crime drama, and A Prophet, a hard-as-iron-bars prison tale, might not seem like the ideal director for a romantic drama. But this is no ordinary tale of hearts and flowers. It has bare-knuckle fighting in it for a start.
It also has Marion Cotillard, the Oscar-winning star of La vie en rose, and Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor of whom audiences will be seeing a lot more. In sum, Rust and Bone is one of the most surprising, moving and thrilling films of the year. And that's before we get to the killer whales.
Stephanie (Cotillard) is employed in a Cote d'Azur water park, working with orcas. To blasts of Katy Perry songs it is Stephanie's job to make these divine creatures entertain bored holidaymakers. It's a living. Stephanie, as we can see from the subtle clues Audiard leaves, is something of a fish out of water herself. A quiet, thoughtful sort, devoted to the creatures she looks after, she is more comfortable with another species than her own.
Ali (Schoenaerts) has recently moved to the coast with his young son. He meets Stephanie at a nightclub where he is a bouncer, and so begins a casual acquaintance that circumstances decree will develop into something more. How it develops, where it goes, or doesn't go, is the simple stuff of Audiard's otherwise complex film.
Rust and Bone began life as a book of short stories by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson. How tales set in Canada and featuring a male hero became a sun-washed, south of France story with a female lead is an interesting study in screenwriting all in itself. Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who also co-wrote A Prophet, use Davidson's book as a starting point for their own ideas, all the while retaining its cool, slacker vibe. Just as R&B the book is about outsiders, so too is R&B the film.
That said, Audiard makes the tale unmistakably his own. For someone whose storytelling style brims with testosterone, Audiard has the most delicate of touches. The dialogue is spare but vital, perfectly matched to the characters. Though this is a drama about relationships and discovering one's true self, however difficult the truth may be, it shuns becoming touchy-feely.
Once he has established a character, Audiard does not stop working. It is easy to think we have a handle on Stephanie, Alain and their various relatives and acquaintances early on, but they continue to surprise as the film goes on, sometimes pleasantly, other times less so.
This is particularly the case with Ali. As in his previous films, Audiard is adept at giving modern French man the kind of mysterious allure once afforded to screen goddesses of old. His heroes are hard to get to know, but they are well worth the effort. In 2009's A Prophet, he took what could have been a commonplace character, a young French-Algerian criminal enduring his first spell in an adult prison, and took both the character and the story to extraordinary places, making a star out of Tahar Rahim in the process. We may not always like Audiard's heroes, but man alive are they compelling.
In the tough, take-care-of-yourself stakes, Cotillard's Stephanie is a contender too. Far from shrinking from Ali's ways, particularly his sideline in bare-knuckle fighting, she seems to relish it after a time. In the wrong directorial hands, the Stephanie character could come across as a male fantasy of a woman rather than something recognisable as real, but Audiard, and Cotillard, make her convincing. Doubts do creep in, both about the character and the story, but such is Audiard's storytelling flare that they appear and disappear as quickly as a Cote d'Azur cloud.
That storytelling flare ensures nothing is done in a half-hearted way. If Audiard uses music it feels like just the right music (he likes his British and American pop does Jacques). He can do the dreamy visuals – the whales are things of beauty and wonder – but he also puts as much effort into the action scenes, some of which are enough to make the heart leap into the mouth. This is not rust and bone filmmmaking, it is flesh and blood and heart and head film-making, bursting with life and demanding to be seen.
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