Movie Reviews - 2012 postsTuesday April 09, 2013
Movie Review: No (2012)
What does the title refer to?
That should be a no-brainer. In 1988, international pressure led the Chilean leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, to agree to hold a plebiscite, on Oct. 5, on whether or not he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a former exile, the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist, who now works in advertising, and who agrees to advise the NO campaign.
For the 30 days leading up to the vote, both sides, YES and NO, are given 15 minutes to make their case each night on state-run television, and most of the NO folks, including Patricio Alywin, who will become the first president of Chile after Pinochet, want to focus on Pinochet’s past crimes: the hundreds of thousands exiled; the tens of thousands tortured; the thousands executed and disappeared. Saavedra sees this and says “Is that all?” He says, “This … this doesn’t sell.” So he and his team set about crafting a product that might win the election. They create a campaign that is sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, and almost always about the happiness that a true democracy will bring. Because, he asks, what’s happier than happiness? Nada, he answers.
“This is the true story,” the international trailer tells us, “of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”
So it’s obvious what “No” refers to. It refers to the moment when a people told a dictator, “No!”
But might it also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
What’s happier than happiness?
We first see René, in the movie’s old-school video format, making a pitch to the makers of a cola, “Free,” which involves MTVish dancing girls and mimes and silly stuff. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he says. It’s a sentence he will repeat twice more in the movie.
In the middle of this meeting he gets a visitor: José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). “The communist?” he’s asked. “Do you know him?” He shrugs it off but is clearly uncomfortable, or at least annoyed, by the presence of Urrutia. Maybe he doesn’t like having a pitch interrupted? But then Urrutia makes a pitch to him: Would he help with the NO campaign? René gives it a moment and then says, “No.”
What changes his mind? We’re not quite sure. After work, he visits the police station, where Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his ex-wife, is being jailed after another political protest. He watches as she gets punched in the face by the cops. Is that what changes his mind? That’s what we assume. But what happens next? He heads home to make dinner for his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), and to work on a campaign for a microwave oven. The wife, who lives elsewhere, comes home later, as he’s taking the boy to bed. They talk in muffled tones, she asks to kiss Simon, and as she leans close, René almost breathes her in. You can see pain of lost love on his face. Look closely. It’s one of the last times you’ll get any emotion out of René.
The NO campaign comes together bit by bit. Initially, there’s an almost “Barton Fink”-like joke, since René’s first pitch is remarkably similar to his pitch for Free Cola. It’s as if he has just one pitch in him. But he’s more adaptable than that. At one point he’s conversing with his mentor, who arrives with the CIA-like phrase, “I’m not here,” and they’re talking in muffled tones, trying to suss out the answer. How do you win this? What sells? “We need to have a product that is sufficiently attractive,” they say. They ask René’s maid why she’s on the YES side. She shrugs. I’m fine, she says. My kids are fine, she says. So how do you combat “fine”? Not with fear. With happiness.
Someone suggests folk songs? He counters with jingles. Veronica tells him his campaign is a joke? He changes the subject. The opposition talks up the wealth of the supposedly impoverished characters in the NO campaign? He brushes it aside. He knows it doesn’t matter. He tells his people to add more jokes. He makes the campaign fun and dazzling.
Sure, he gets pressured by Pinochet’s goons. Graffiti is spraypainted on his home and car. His housekeeper is threatened by soldiers on the streets. The ad team is watched, followed. He receives a late-night phone call. “How are you, René? How is Simon? I like your train.” Click.
His boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is working on the YES campaign, and the two square off numerous times. Guzman tells government ministers, “We’re going to fuck them up,” and he says it to René, too. René says it back. Guzman implies he’ll fire him and René dares him. “Go ahead, fire me,” he says. The tension between the two men feels personal and political but it’s neither. We’re surprised, for example, when halfway through the movie René is still working for Guzman. He’s working for him in the end as well. So if it’s not personal or political, what is it?
It’s competition. They both want to win. Maybe that’s all René ever wanted.
The tension between form and content
From the beginning, most of those involved in the NO campaign think the entire referendum is a sham, since, no matter the vote, Pinochet won’t let go of power. We assume the opposite, since the movie has been made. But we’re still on the edge of our seats.
The key event, really, occurs election night, Oct. 5, when the generals of the various armed forces don’t back Pinochet’s attempt to rig the election. They keep it fair. That’s really how that dictatorship crumbles. The NO campaign helped, certainly, but without the generals the rigged vote would’ve simply been one more lie during 15 years of lies.
Instead, NO wins: 55 to 45 percent. For a moment, they’re all stunned. Then they begin to celebrate. And as politicians make speeches and people shout and dance and sing, René picks up Simon and weaves his way through the crowds. At one point his eyes get a little misty. Does he smile? I don’t recall. Is he happy? One assumes so but we have no evidence. Does he celebrate with everyone? With anyone? No. He just walks through the crowd, holds onto his son, and thinks. It’s what he’s been doing for the entire movie, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lead character think so much onscreen.
This is the movie’s high point but it doesn’t end here. It continues. We watch René, on his skateboard again, on his way to work again, where he makes a pitch to a soap opera using the same language he used before: “the current social context,” etc. And that’s our end.
What’s changed from the beginning of the movie? Nada. Todo y nada. So why end like this? Why focus on René? Why make him the way he is? Without seeming motivation? Without seeming emotion? Why film the movie in video with its ugly, boxy (1.33:1) aspect ratio?
Throughout, I felt a tension between the movie’s form and its content. What René pitches, what he sells, is the opposite of what writer-director Pablo Larraín is saying and selling.
“No” is an art flick but its hero is selling Hollywood endings. He’s selling glamour even though he’s filmed in unglamorous locations using unglamorous video. The movie has a right to be happy—“a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”—but it doesn’t indulge in its happiness. It’s dour. It’s gray. René would not approve. He would look at the movie and say, “Is that all?” He would look at Larraín and say, “This … this doesn’t sell.”
So what is Pablo Larraín selling?
The current social context
In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that of the two dystopian novels of the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it was the latter, not the former, that is the more accurate depiction of the modern western world. Our problem isn’t totalitarianism but capitalism. We don’t suffer from a lack of choices but an abundance of them. We haven’t become a captive culture but a trivial one. We aren’t controlled by the threat of pain but by the promise of pleasure. We keep voting for happiness.
Pablo Larraín’s “No” is about the return of democracy to Chile, and that’s a glorious event, but the movie doesn’t indulge in the glory. It recognizes that even as one tyrant is overthrown, a lesser tyrant emerges. Chile loses “1984” and gains “Brave New World.” It says “No” to Pinochet. But saying “No” to René? Well, why would we even do that? Why would we say “No” to the promise of happiness?
“What you’re going to see now,” René says at the beginning of the movie, “is in line with the current social context.” Yes. Yes, it is.
Movie Review: On the Road (2012)
Near the beginning of “On the Road,” the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1957 novel by screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is saying good-bye to friends Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Dean Moriarity (Garrett Hedlund), who are leaving New York for Denver, and the three gather in a photobooth for a picture. Back then, apparently, you only got one photo, not four, so Dean takes out a razor blade and cuts the picture in half. Meaning he cuts Sal in half. Then he gives Sal the half with his picture on it (plus half of Sal) and keeps the half with Carlo (plus half of Sal).
You could say this represents the great bifurcation of Sal Paradise, who is trapped between the writing life, as represented by Carlo (read: Allen Ginsberg), and the wild, mad life on the road, as represented by Dean (Neal Cassady), and only much later, near the end of the movie, when the two halves are brought together again, does Sal see a way out of his dilemma. He joins the Dean and Carlo halves of his soul by taping together many hundreds of 8x11 pieces of paper until he has a whole roll; then he just cuts loose on the keyboard. In mad-to-live, mad-to-talk bursts, he reproduces their life on the road on paper. Which is supposedly how Kerouac created his masterpiece.
I was never a fan, by the way.
The white boy looks at the black boy looking at the white boy
I read “On the Road” for the first and only time in my early 20s, which is when you’re supposed to read it and fall in love with it, but I didn’t. I was a careful kid. Too careful, really, but I knew what I liked. I liked Salinger, Roth, Doctorow, and Irving, who wrote beautifully about things that mattered. Kerouac, it seemed to me, didn’t write beautifully about things that didn’t matter. The adventures he described were episodic and dull. His voice felt like someone trying to push a Volkswagen up to 150 mph. I found the characters Sal and Dean and Carlo, based upon Kerouac and his friends, frenetic and pretentious.
I wasn’t the only one.
In the essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” from the collection “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin takes Kerouac apart. First he quotes him at length:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I had white ambitions. … I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.
Then he lets him have it, keying in on one of Kerouac’s favorite words:
Now, this is absolute nonsense, of course, objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Salles’ movie, however, is quite good. Yes, it’s still episodic, and, yes, it merely builds toward dissolution—toward that moment when young friends are pulled in different directions, and they give up the mad life, or the chance at the mad life, and instead of seeing jazz in sweaty Negro clubs they see it at Carnegie Hall wearing suits and ties. But then the movie pushes past all that toward creation, Sal’s creation, or recreation, his melding of the two halves of his soul so he can write it all down. I like that.
We also lose, for the most part, Kerouac’s voice. This is generally a negative for movies adapting great works of literature. Who’d want to give up Fitzgerald’s voice in “The Great Gatsby,” Nabokov’s in “Lolita,” Proust’s or Joyce’s anywhere? But with Kerouac it’s a plus. I don’t have to hear him pushing his Volkswagen up to 150. I don’t have to hear him romanticize about dusky knees and lives he knows nothing about. Salles edits him. He makes Sal seem less of an asshole.
What they do with it
Watching Salles’ movie, I got a real sense of the narrow niche, in time and place, that allowed this story to occur. At one point they hop a train and I thought, “Fifteen years earlier, they would’ve been hobos in the Depression.” They rock out to Negro jazz and scat and I thought, “Ten years later, would it be rock n’ roll? And, if so, could they see themselves on the stage in a way they don’t now? Would they form a band, ‘The Beat Generation,’ with their Top 40 hit, ‘Mad to Live, Mad to Love’?” Their story happened the way it happened because it was after the Depression and after the war, but before the country was unified by television and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.
Was the madness here a consequence of the war? A consequence of the bomb? Sal in the novel is ex-GI but I don’t think we get much war talk in the movie. One can assume these were kids raised during great economic dislocation, who, in adolescence, were geared toward war, propagandized daily, but who suddenly found themselves at the height of their energy and strength with no World War and no Depression. The rest of the world was licking its wounds, rebuilding from the rubble, but America was fairly untouched and affluent, and what did you do with that?
This is what Dean and Sal and company do with that:
- Get high
- Go to jazz clubs
- Drive fast
- Have lots of sex with lots of partners
- Have pseudo-intellectual conversations
They’re the model for every annoying undergraduate since.
They crisscross the country. At first, it’s Sal, alone, with his thumb, and he hangs with Carlo and Dean in Denver, then continues onto California, where he hooks up with Terry (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia), who is part of a migrant-worker community there. Everyone picks cotton, gets their dismal pay, but only Sal pauses before The Man with a look on his face. He can afford to. In voiceover he tells us, “I could feel the pull from my life calling me back.” He has that option. He gets to play at being a migrant worker and then leave. The others don’t. Hence Baldwin’s anger, above.
All of the characters love Dean. He’s handsome and vibrant and sexual. He wants, wants, wants, but without consequence, and there are always consequences. He wants the freedom to flit, but flitting means abandonment. It means betrayal. He’s a con man. I like when he gets the girl for Sal, Rita (Kaniehtiio Horn), and, with Carlo, the four of them are partying and drinking and dancing, and Rita says, “Bless me, Father, for I will sin.” Then we hear moaning from the bedroom, and the camera slowly pans left, to Carlo and … wait for it … Sal, dazed on the couch, where Sal wonders aloud: Wasn’t the girl for me? But all the girls are Dean’s.
The main girl is Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who is supposed to be 16, but Stewart hardly looks it. There’s also Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Dean’s wife in San Francisco. They have a baby, another on the way, when Sal shows up and Dean asks to go out with him by asking Camille along, too, knowing she can’t. She calls him on it but off he goes. When he returns at dawn, she demands he leave. There’s a great look on her face, panic as she gets what she wants, which isn’t what she wants. She wants him to stay, to beg her to stay, but that’s not him. So he leaves her there with one baby and another on the way. How bad must you be when William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee, played by Viggo Mortensen) calls you irresponsible?
The final abandonment is of Sal, with dysentery, in Mexico.
Marylou at 81
So “On the Road,” the movie, is better than “On the Road,” the book. It actually makes all the sex and drugs and travel look pretty bleak. The cast is good, and Hedlund, he of the deep voice, is a future star.
As I was writing this, though, I kept wondering about Marylou. If she was 16 in 1947 she’d be 81 now. Does she think back on those days? Does she remember sitting between two guys in the front seat of a ’49 Hudson shooting through Arizona, all three of them naked, and jacking them both off at the same time? What smile flits across her creased face then?
That’s the distance that matters to me. That’s the road the matters. We’re all on it.
Movie Review: Tabu (2012)
From the first frame I felt trapped. I watched the safari adventurer standing there in his pith helmet and moustache, slouched, torpid, and looking nothing like a safari adventurer, as Africans paraded past carrying equipiment on poles, with the jungle around him, what’s supposed to be the heart of the dark continent, looking more like the sparse woods near your home, the clumps of trees and wild grass next to Minnehaha Creek in south Minneapolis, for example; and it was all so flimsy, so devoid of life, and filmed in black-and-white with an old timey aspect ratio (1:37: 1), that I merely thought one thought: “Oh no.”
I might have left right then but I was with friends, whom I’d dragged to this. I’d heard good things. Some critics put “Tabu” in their top 10 for 2012. A few made it their No. 1 movie of the year. But from the first frame I feared their idea of what’s art, or storytelling, or truth or beauty, wasn’t mine. Not close.
For the rest of the movie I hope my first impression was wrong. I hoped I’d get interested.
It wasn’t. I didn’t.
The opening scenes are from an old movie, a story of lost love and ghosts and crocodiles on the African continent, which Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is watching in modern-day Lisbon. She’s 60s, a good, God-fearing woman living alone in an apartment. Her neighbor is Aurora (Laura Soveral), older and with a hint of faded glamour, but beginning to lose it. We get an interesting scene in a casino where Aurora talks of a dream set in Africa, with a husband with hairy arms pretending to be a monkey, and the background keeps shifting in the telling. Writer-director Miguel Gomes does more interesting things with that background than he does with anyone in the foreground for the rest of the movie.
“Tabu” is split in two parts. The first deals with a bit of Pilar’s life, including a Polish exchange student who abandons her on sight, and a would-be artist who attempts to romance her. But mostly she gets involved in the decline and fall and eventual death of Aurora. On her deathbed, Aurora gives Pilar a name, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who is the key to the second part of the story, the earlier part of the story, set in the days of Portugese colonialism in the shadow of the fictitious Mt. Tabu in Africa. He tells it to Pilar and Aurora’s live-in maid, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), while we watch. It’s a tale of adultery and searing love. It recalls the line of narration from the pith-helmet movie that opened the film: “You can run as long as you can, and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”
I like some of this narration. I like some of the photography. But there’s no life here. The faces of the characters are as blank and deadpan as the faces of commuters on a city bus. Remember John Ford’s admonition to film the most interesting thing in the world—a human face? Gomes gives lie to this. He shows the opposite. In his hands, a human face is the least interesting thing in the world.
So why do other critics like “Tabu” so much? Here’s Richard Brody in The New Yorker:
In Gomes’s ingenious vision, the smoothed-out, tamped-down, serenely cultured solitude of the modern city, with its air of constructive purpose in tiny orbits, rests on a dormant volcano of passionate memories packed with adventurous misdeeds, both political and erotic. Filming in suave, charcoal-matte black-and-white, he frames the poignant mini-melodramas of daily life with a calmly analytical yet tenderly un-ironic eye. If today’s neurotic tensions come off as a corrective to past crimes, even a form of repentance, Gomes’s historical reconstruction of corrupted grandeur is as much a personal liberation as a form of civic therapy.
That’s some heavy lifting. Me, I need more life in my films. I need to be able to breathe. In “Tabu,” from the first frame, I felt entombed in something that wasn’t true or beautiful or worth what little time I have left in this existence.
Movie Review: Amour (2012)
Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above).
With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
Hurts hurts hurts
The above concert, performed by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), a former student of Anne’s who is now internationally acclaimed, is the first and last time we see Georges and Anne outside their apartment. The next morning during breakfast, in the midst of casual conversation, Anne suddenly stops talking and stares into space. Georges can’t get a reaction out of her. She’s upright but not there. He puts a towel to her face and neck. He returns to the bedroom to change out of his pajamas to get help. Then he hears the water in the kitchen stop running. It’s Anne. She’s back but doesn’t remember being gone.
We get medical terminology. Something stopping the flow of blood somewhere. People arrive, help out, including Georges and Anna’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and the concierge and her husband, and then workmen installing a medical bed. When we next see Anne she’s in a wheelchair. She’s having trouble moving. A stroke? Is it just her right side? Yes and yes. “Please, never take me back to the hospital,” she tells her husband. He promises. “Don’t feel guilty,” she tells him. “I don’t feel guilty,” he responds, confused.
He helps her with her physical therapy. He tells her stories about his youth. He reluctantly goes to the funeral of a friend, Pierre, but, in the reporting, criticizes the event: the eulogy was bad, the music chosen, “Yesterday” by the Beatles, was maudlin and provoked laughter from the young, the urn stood on a stand meant for a coffin. Anne doesn’t want to hear any of this. I suppose Georges is her Michael Haneke, telling her unpalatable truths. “You’re a monster sometimes,” she tells him, “but very kind.” Haneke shows us monsters. The kindness we get here is new.
Anne’s former student, Alexandre, turns up, initially full of himself, and Anne is happy to see him but he’s obviously shocked by Anne’s state. Days later, when he sends along his latest CD, the note talks of “the beautiful and sad moment” of his visit. Anne’s face closes off. During his visit, she’d requested a number, and he’d filled the room with beauty. Now she tells Georges to turn off his CD. His visit, I’m sure, was a high moment for her, and now it’s tarnished by the word “sad.” She doesn’t want pity. She wants to maintain a certain level of dignity. But time keeps slipping in and stealing things.
She wets the bed. Eva visits again, this time with her British husband, Geoff (William Shimell), and by now, Anne, bedridden, can only speak gibberish. Apparently there was a second stroke. She has to wear a diaper. She’s fed mush. Wasn’t it just a few scenes ago where she was eating dinner with her husband in the kitchen? Steak and vegetables? At that time, her world seemed narrowed but now that moment feels full of possibility. One thinks of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych.” The world keeps shrinking and shrinking. Time keeps taking and taking. Anne is Georges’ whole life now. He hires one nurse, then another. The second one is incompetent, obtuse in her cruelty. She brushes Anne’s hair too hard, then forces her to look into mirrors she doesn’t want to look into. Georges fires her. She doesn’t get it. Georges explains. She refuses to see it. She calls Georges names. “You’re a mean old man,” she says. More Beatles.
George tries to feed Anne but she’s obstinate and angry. “If you don’t drink, you will die,” he says. “Do you want that?” She does. He forces water on her. She spits it out and he slaps her. Both are horrified by what they’ve become.
She moans a lot. “Money for concert,” she says at one point, remembering, no doubt, something from childhood. “Hurts, hurts, hurts,” she says more often. He returns to her bedside, pats her hand to calm her, tells her another story. She calms down. Then he grabs a pillow and against her struggles smothers her to death. It’s not just what she wants, it’s what we want, too. Make it fucking end.
What nightmares may come
We actually watch the entire movie waiting for the moment of death. In the beginning, before the concert, we see the police and concierge break down the door to her bedroom, where Anne lies, as if in state, on a bed amid flowers. Her face is slightly shrunken and the men hold handkerchiefs to their noses and open the windows. Otherwise the place is empty. As a result, throughout the film, we’re wondering how it gets to that point. Why does Georges leave her this way? And where does he go?
He drifts. After Anne’s death, he gets flowers. He prepares her. He seals up her bedroom. Pigeons often get into their apartment and he works to shoo them out but now we watch him close the window on one pigeon and trap it with a blanket. We assume the worst (it’s Haneke) but he simply strokes it beneath the blanket. He’s lonely. At least that’s how I read it.
When he leaves the apartment, at Anne’s urging, is that the moment of his own death (she returns to get him) or the moment when delusion trumps reality? Is he dead in the apartment or does he wander the street, perhaps to die there, or to be found and put in a hospital, where he’ll die, amid the tubes and the diapers and the slow closing off of the world? This is kindler, gentler Haneke (that pigeon wouldn’t have survived in “The White Ribbon”), but he still leaves us with questions. He doesn’t round off his ending. It’s as frayed as ever.
In the theater lobby afterwards, with everyone trying to exhale and live again, a woman in her sixties turned to me. “I have two words for that movie,” she said. “Assisted suicide.” I nodded, paused. “I have four words for that movie,” I said. “I need a drink.”
Neither her two words nor my four words relieved the horror. On the walk home I saw a little girl, 5 maybe, skipping in an alleyway between her parents, and wanted to yell at her. “Don’t you know what’s going to HAPPEN?!? The awful fate that awaits you!?! Yes, YOU!” Is this what it’s like being Michael Haneke? How does he sleep? What nightmares does he have? Or does he put them on the screen for the rest of us and sleep like a baby? Many people see me as a cynic, a grump, a curmudgeon before my time; but compared to Haneke I feel like the most wide-eyed Pollyanna that ever skipped the earth.
The dude’s a cold genius, but there’s little warmth and not much beauty in his vision. I think of Bill Cunningham’s line from last year’s documentary: He who seeks beauty will find it. Where is the beauty in Haneke’s vision? Where is the joy? Surely there’s joy. Once in a while?
If this is “Amour,” and I get why it is, please, Michael Haneke, don’t show us “Haine.”
Movie Review: Rust and Bone (2012)
I want the movies to stun me. I want to walk out of the theater in a daze. Hollywood didn’t help much in this regard this past year. They left it to the French to pick up the slack.
“De rouille et d’os” (“Rust and Bone”) is a beautiful film about tragic circumstances. In the hands of a lesser writer-director, it would be melodrama but Jacques Audiard (“Un Prophete”) makes poetry out of it. A bloody tooth, loosened during a fight, spins in slow motion on the pavement as if in dance. A woman whose legs have been cut off above the knee returns to the ocean, whose warm waters glisten. Later, with metal legs and cane, she walks down the steps at Marineland, where she once worked, and stands in silence before a large glass tank. She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An Orca. The Orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and Audiard never says. We simply watch the whale move with her movements. It’s been trained, and she was one of its trainers. She’s confronting her past, finally, but it’s also a moment steeped in silence and mystery and beauty and forgiveness. It’s the best scene of 2012.
Being watched, getting bored
“Rust and Bone” is a tougher story to tell than Audiard’s previous film, “Un Prophete,” and not because Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) loses her legs a half-hour in. “Un Prophete” was about one man: Malik. The camera follows him. Easy. This is about two people, Stéphanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), and for half the movie they’re not together. Audiard has to juggle their storylines. He has to bring them together, and apart, and together, in a way that feels real.
They don’t meet cute. He’s a down-on-his luck Belgian boxer with a five-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), who comes to stay with his sister, a cashier, in a clapboard, motel-like apartment complex in Antibes, near Nice, on the southern coast of France. We watch him scrounge for food, steal, hitchhike. He’s not the best father. He often seems lost in thought but one can’t imagine the thought. He’s mostly just there.
Through a friend of his sister’s he gets a job as a bouncer at a club, L’Annex, and later that night there’s a fracas and Ali is restraining a guy who’s causing trouble. We see a woman’s legs, supine, on the dance floor, then her bloody nose. Did the dude punch her? Aren’t there laws against that? Not against punching women in general but Marion Cotillard. That’s like digging an elbow into the Mona Lisa or taking a hammer to Michelangelo’s David.
On the drive home, she’s drunk and distant, he’s matter-of-fact and clumsy. He mentions the way she dresses. How do I dress? she asks. He fumbles a bit. He doesn’t have the word. Actually he does, and uses it with a shrug: whore. She can’t quite believe him. This pattern will repeat itself.
It’s significant, of course, that we first see her as legs. It’s significant that he stares at her legs on the ride home. It’s significant that he goes up to her place to ice his knuckles, since his knuckles will have a rendezvous with ice later in the film.
After she’s lost her legs, and after they’ve begun what they’ve begun, we’ll get a better understanding of what might have happened that night at L’Annex. She makes this admission to him:
I liked being watched. I liked turning them on. I liked getting them all worked up. But then I'd just get bored.
Past tense. She obviously misses it—and doesn’t. She obviously doesn’t particularly like the person she was—but misses it.
We get a soupçon of her life before the Marineland accident, and at the hospital we see the result before she does. We see the absence and wait uncomfortably. This has been a famous scene before, notably in “King’s Row” with Ronald Reagan. “Where’s the rest of me?” he says. It’s probably the best acting he ever did. Cotillard blows him away. She grounds an unreal scene. Her trauma is overwhelming. “What did you do with my legs?” she says over and over, on the floor, crawling, because there are no other words. There are no other words for a long time.
Do you even realize?
Would Stéphanie and Ali have gotten together without the accident? There are barriers of class and attitude between them. He’s working class, she’s middle class or higher. She’s educated, he’s not.
But he’s exactly what she needs because he’s without pretense or pity. He does what he does, wants what he wants, shrugs away the rest. She’s been holed up in a state-run apartment for months when he first visits her. He wants to go outside; she doesn’t; they do. He wants to go swimming; she doesn’t; they do. “Do you even realize?” she says when he first suggests it. Do you even realize? He doesn’t. That’s his charm. On the boardwalk, she whistles for him, like a dog, and he carries her closer to the water, and then into the water, where she’s tentative at first—she doesn’t know how well she’ll swim without the bottom half of her legs. Then she feels it. Then she knows she can do it. In the audience I worried she’d try to swim away and drown herself but Ali has no such worry. He actually dozes on the beach, and she has to whistle for him again to come get her. “Fuck, this feels good,” she says.
It would be reductive to suggest she tames and trains this beast of a man, this mixed martial-arts fighter, the way she tamed and trained whales. He’s not much of a beast, for one. He has kindnesses. He’s just a lunk. He’s generally a considerate lunk but other times not. He’s impatient with his son, non-committal with his sister. He doesn’t think of the consequences of his actions. This helps with Stéphanie, initially, because others are walking on eggshells around her and it’s the eggshells that hurt. One day she talks about not having had sex since the accident, not knowing if it even works anymore, and as they’re doing dishes he brings it up:
He: You want to fuck?
He: To see if it still…
She: Just like that?
Just like that. I like a scene, at the gym where we trains, where he watches a woman leading others in aerobics or yoga; then the two are outside smoking cigarettes and he says a word of greeting; then they’re fucking. Just like that. This tryst causes him to be late picking up Sam at school, for which he’s admonished by an administrator. Third time in two weeks, he’s told. Do you even realize? After a mixed martial-arts victory, he and his crew, including Stéphanie, go to L’Annex, but he leaves with another girl. She goes to the bar to drown whatever she’s feeling, and a clumsy, overbearing dude tries to pick her up. Then he sees her metal legs. Then he’s on eggshells. His apology implies this: I should have pitied you instead of lusted for you. He gets a drink in the face and a bloody nose. We’ve come full circle. The next morning she lays out the rules with Ali, who chafes under rules. But she’s matter-of-fact about it:
Let’s show some manners. I mean consideration. You’ve always been so considerate to me. We continue but not like animals.
One doesn’t expect much from his fight career but he’s good. He thrives on it. After one victory he’s so pumped he needs to expend more energy and bursts out of the van for a run. Some of the best moments in the movie are the small moments: the confused pride on Stéphanie’s face when she’s nonchalantly dismissed as “his girlfriend”; the way she jerks imperceptibly when he’s taken down; the look of amused pride on her face when she takes over as his manager and deals successful with the rabble of noisy, bartering men.
Of course, to me, any moment with Marion Cotillard’s face in it is a good moment.
Just like that
Things fall apart in a way that feels aesthetically pleasing. Ali helps his manager, Martial (Bouli Lanners), who is silent, bearded and gruff, install camera equipment at stores. Not to spy on customers but workers. It’s illegal, they’re found out, photos are taken by angry employees, and Martial has to leave town to avoid prosecution. But as a result of this work, Ali’s sister gets canned for taking expired foods that have been tossed by the company. Imagine: She takes in Ali, takes care of his son, and he gets her fired. Do you even realize? There’s a scene. There’s a shotgun. He leaves. Just like that.
Is the ending hurried? Suddenly Ali is training for national tournaments in the snow, and the sister’s boyfriend brings Sam to the camp for the day. They’re skating in their shoes on an iced-over lake, and Ali turns to take a piss. Behind him we see Sam disappear through the ice. Eventually Ali runs to the hole but finds his son some distance away, trapped beneath the ice. It’s a horrific image. He begins to pound on the ice with his bare fists. Something begins to crack but we don’t think it’s the ice. “Rust and Bone” is such a tactile movie. I doubt many people in the audience breathed during this scene.
In a voiceover we’re told about bones breaking and healing but how afterwards, as Hemingway said, some are stronger in the broken places. Not the bones in the hand, though. You feel those breaks the rest of your life. So I assumed his career was over. I assumed the movie was about a swimmer who loses her legs and a mixed martial-arts fighter who loses his fists, but in the final shots he’s with Stéphanie and Sam at a Warsaw hotel before a big, international match. So that’s not it. So I suppose it’s about the pain. It’s about continuing with a pain that won’t go away. I suppose that’s why we get, as the credits roll, Sigur Rós’ “The Wolves (Act I & 2)” sounding like a benediction:
Someday my pain
Someday my pain will mark you.
Harness your blame
Harness your blame and walk through.
I left the theater in a daze. I walked and walked and didn’t want to lose the feeling the movie gave me like a gift.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard