Gilbey on Film: Rust belt

Jacques Audiard tosses his audience some bones.

Reluctant as I am to rain on anyone’s parade, to cast a pall over the party before the sausage rolls have even cooled, I have a bone to pick with Rust and Bone, which won the London Film Festival’s top prize on Saturday and opens in the UK next week. The director Jacques Audiard has had an incredible run of psychologically astute and cinematically sophisticated films (including A Self-Made Hero, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet) but it has been interrupted by Rust and Bone.

There are many aspects to the film that ring false for me, but the most disappointing one for Audiard admirers is likely to be the way it uses documentary techniques to lay the groundwork for its bogus and entirely partial characterisation. As the picture begins, a stubble-headed bruiser and his young son are seen hitchhiking, then scavenging for food on a train and finally bumming around on a beach where the boy wears a Happy Meal box as a hat. This is lovely stuff, deftly edited (the cut from the child bleating “I’m hungry” to the shot of the father collecting scraps of discarded grub is particularly fine) and with a patience and implicit compassion that would not disgrace the Dardenne brothers.

The father, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), is taken in by his sister and brother-in-law in Antibes, and the boy starts school. Working as a nightclub bouncer, Ali comes to the aid of the soused Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after she is assaulted on the dancefloor, and drives her home. Ali is a bit of a knucklehead - on the way, his idea of charming small-talk is to comment that she dresses like a prostitute - but we know he’s a good egg really. And he gets a chance to prove it when Stephanie, a whale trainer, suffers a terrible accident at work which results in the loss of both her legs.

At a time in her life when she is feeling diminished, Ali offers selflessly to have sex with her whenever she wants. The film might propose a symbolic bond between Ali and the orca which caused Stephanie’s accident - both are hulking mammals prone to harm anyone in their immediate vicinity, and both are subject to Stephanie’s urge to tame them. But the idea that there’s any real risk or danger to the relationship is a joke, even once we’ve seen Ali throw his son on the sofa, bruising the boy’s head. No nature documentary was ever as sentimental about a whale as Rust and Bone is about Ali. Even before Stephanie’s accident, the film marks him out as a hunky alternative to her weaselly boyfriend (the picture delights in seeing Ali humiliate him, and in Stephanie witnessing and registering that fact). He exists to complete the lives of the vulnerable; whether hoisting his son onto his shoulders, or giving Stephanie a piggyback into the sea after her double amputation, he is the noble, savage saviour who makes other people whole.

Audiard is correct to describe his movie as a love story, though the love which predominates is the one felt by the filmmakers for Ali. Like Steve McQueen’s Shame, Rust and Bone is in thrall to the Alpha male it feigns to scrutinise. The camera’s attention is admiring rather than analytical, not least in the hilariously overwrought bareknuckle boxing scenes, which exist only to push the animal/savagery metaphor while lending the film its façade of grittiness. (The way the picture draws Stephanie into the streetfighting sub-plot has to be seen to be gawped at incredulously.)

The director pinpointed in a recent interview the balancing act that runs through Rust and Bone: “There was a specific problem with this film which we saw often during the writing: the clash between realism and stylisation. You had constantly to be looking for an equilibrium. If it’s too realistic, it’s boring. If it’s too stylised, you don’t believe it.” Exactly. And I don’t believe it. Not because of the element of stylisation, but because of how the “boring” realism is deployed not to find the truth in the narrative but to smuggle a story no harsher or more authentic than any Saturday night rom-com.

Why does Rust and Bone have to make it so easy for audiences? Its patronising view of human psychology, where people fit together like jigsaw pieces, supplying neatly the parts of one another which are missing, flies in the face of Audiard’s complex past work. It’s the kind of film where a frozen lake exists for one reason only: to facilitate a moment of heartache and tragedy just when the movie needs an extra shot of poignancy. We’re used to provocations, ideas and ambiguities from Audiard. With this latest film, he merely throws us one bone after another.

"Rust and Bone" opens on 2 November.

Jacques Audiard at this year's Cannes Film Festival (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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