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.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.