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.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
Show Hide image

Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses