Film Review: Jacques Audiard - It’s a Man’s World
Words: James McLoughlin
Following The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Prophet (2009) was never going to be easy and a common introduction thus far to Rust and Bone is that it’s unlike Jacques Audiard’s previous films. The promise of a sweeping love story and some whales makes this easy to believe but in fact the film bears the stamps of its maker rather clearly. Superficially that’s incongruous musical cues and flickering soft focus close ups but the themes that Jacques Audiard returns to, intentionally or not, are that of the troubled male and his female counterpart.
The primary romance in Rust and Bone is between Ali; a bouncer with a young son and impatience with emotional involvement and Stephanie, a whale trainer who tragically loses her legs after a whale goes a bit mad (or something). It doesn’t take much to work out from that summary that their relationship evolves from a mutual dependence, her guiding touch complimenting his brutishness and his brutishness complimenting her lack of…legs, amongst other things. This co-dependence mirrors that which evolves in Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) between Carla, a shy partially deaf office worker and Paul, a wayward ex-convict recently released from prison. Paul is hired as Carla’s assistant and getting closer throughout the film they eventually team up to steal from old enemies of Paul’s who are holding him to ransom, her skills as a lip reader proving significant.
In both films the men seem to aide the women, most explicitly with their respective disabilities. Ali carries Stephanie on his back in to the sea so she can feel the water and swim again. Paul provides a kind of social lubricant for Carla whose hearing problems are just one source of her social alienation. The treatment of sex in both cases could also be seen as the men aiding the women. When Stephanie expresses her concerns over how her disability will affect her sexuality Ali suggests they could have sex on a purely functional ‘operational’ basis. In Read My Lips Paul provides Carla with a sort of substitute boyfriend whilst finally fulfilling her latent sexual desires in the film’s denouement, which are until then only lived out vicariously through her promiscuous best friend and by solitary examinations of her own naked body.
The women meanwhile seem to tame the men. A central metaphor of Rust and Bonecompares Stephanie’s training and taming of whales to her taming of Ali. She tries to tease something more than just physical emotion and love from him and serves as a kind of barometer for his brute force and energy. Ali’s passion is fighting and wrestling and when Stephanie discovers this she relishes watching him fight and ultimately becomes his manager of sorts. A telling extract is when Stephanie reveals that she used go to clubs and dress provocatively as she loved to turn the men on and get them worked up but would then get bored.
In Read My Lips Carla attempts to ingratiate Paul into society after he’s been released from prison, firstly by giving him the job as her assistant despite his lack of qualifications and disastrous interview, and then by covering his tracks when he can’t seem to keep up with the job, his chequered past holding him back.
Both films revolve around the idea of two explicitly flawed and fractured characters developing a relationship in which they somehow balance each other out and become their own force.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet are films that on the surface do seem very unlike Rust and Bone but again the central theme of the troubled male is addressed. These are both films about men with a talent, something that can lift them out of the worlds they find themselves in. In A Prophet Malik navigates his way to the top of the prison food chain by his use of cunning and his mixed ethnicity, which allows him to flit between the warring clans of Corsicans and Muslims. In The Beat That My Heart SkippedTom is torn between his talents as a concert pianist and his shady criminal life in real estate, which he shares with his father. Again we see a mutual relationship evolve between Tom and his non-French speaking Chinese piano tutor Miao Lin. She helps him channel his talents as a pianist whilst he eventually becomes her manager as well as partner, becoming so attached he seems to never leave her side.
It’s easy to point out that films in which men are the focus are not exactly hard to come by but what strikes when coming out of Rust and Bone is the familiarity of it’s approach to the relationship between the male and female protagonists, within the context of Audiard’s work. The marketing seems to be focused around Stephanie and her whales, posters featuring Marion Cotillard’s face more prominently than anything else (who can blame them?). But again, it’s hard not to leave the film feeling you’ve been told a story about a fractured male character whose flaws have been worked on and turned into gold (or just something good) by the female protagonist, whose own issues and flaws are made secondary to the dramatic surge of the film that is the male. It remains to be seen for how long this theme will reoccur in Jacques Audiard’s oeuvre but for now it’s serving him pretty well.