If French cinema still carries a reputation for talky chamber pieces of the bourgeoisie, here's a visceral slice of life in the raw: Whether it's the killer whales, the prominent Katy Perry song, the back-alley fighting or its unlikely romance set against day-to-day hardships in the South of France, the new "Rust and Bone" is imagistic and emotionally wrought, pushing into surprising territories.
Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard's previous film, "A Prophet," was another high-pitched drama and was nominated for the foreign language Academy Award. The film hit a sweet spot with audiences and critics alike at home and abroad, and the filmmaker was hailed as "the French Scorsese." "Rust and Bone," opening Dec. 7 in Los Angeles, is in many ways a direct response to "A Prophet," seeking out light, space and love in contrast to the dark, hurtling prison drama of Audiard's previous film.
Adapted from a pair of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, the film follows an orca trainer at a Sea World-style marine park named Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who loses her legs in an accident at work. Battling a deep depression, she reaches out to a bouncer and sometimes boxer she had met only once named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is trying to make things work for himself and his young son. Both damaged, Stephanie and Ali heal each other, bodies and souls.
"We wanted to build a movie you could not anticipate, you wouldn't know what would be next," Audiard said of wanting to get away from the mechanics of the crime genre.
Audiard's co-writer Thomas Bidegain added, "Every day we would have to find a balance, all the way through, from the writing to the music mix. It was the balance between realism and stylization. If you get too realistic it gets very boring, and if it's too stylized you lose touch, you don't believe the story anymore."
"Rust and Bone" arrives as part of a strong round of French films, some of which have found favor with U.S. audiences. Even with its Hollywood trappings, last year's Oscar triumph "The Artist" was very much a French film. The worldwide box office smash "The Intouchables," now France's submission for this year's Academy Award for foreign language film, has made more than $12 million in the U.S. too. Among the 50-some French films released in the U.S. this year, it would seem the pump is primed for another breakout French hit, and "Rust and Bone" could be that film.
Certainly that will be aided by the presence of the 37-year-old Cotillard, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for her role in the French-language "La Vie en Rose," a biopic of singer Edith Piaf. Since then she has become an international star in films such as "Midnight in Paris" and "The Dark Knight Rises," her air of willful self-possession seeming at once mysterious and attainable.
According to Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, distributor of "Rust and Bone," younger mainstream audiences seem to have less of a problem with subtitles than the previous generation, and stars like Cotillard make "those foreign films become more commercial. And a lot of them become films that aren't perceived as foreign."
Just as Hollywood is looking more and more beyond its own borders for partners and revenue, so too is the French film industry. Of the 71 films submitted for the upcoming foreign language Academy Award, nearly a dozen are French co-productions, including films from Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Romania and Michael Haneke's Austrian submission "Amour," a bracing story of love at the end of life set in Paris. Last year's Iranian Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi, is shooting his next film in France too.
"In the last few years, people have discovered that French cinema is very diversified," said Francois Truffart, executive producer and programmer with the COL-COA film festival in Los Angeles, pointing to not only films that play the arthouse circuit but also the recent mainstream hit "Taken 2." "And you have more and more writers and producers in France who are working on universal stories and films that can be understandable for audiences not only in France but overseas."
The film "Holy Motors" from cult director Leos Carax is also in theaters, and on the horizon will be such intriguing films as Olivier Assayas' semi-autobiographical "Something in the Air," François Ozon's "In the House" and the romantic comedy "Populaire."
While in town recently for a gala screening and tribute to Cotillard as part of AFI Fest, Audiard, Bidegain, Schoenaerts and the actress were seated for a lunchtime interview around a table. Audiard, 60, was tucked into a corner with a certain cultivated diffidence, fidgeting with his usual hat and sunglasses until he pulled out a polka dot scarf and wrapped it around his neck over the striped tie he is already wearing against a patterned suit. It shouldn't all go together, but it does, with the same decisive boldness that underlines his filmmaking.
Audiard worked for years as a screenwriter and didn't direct his first features until he was past 40, with 1994's "See How They Fall" and 1996's "A Self-Made Hero." He really began to receive notice internationally with 2001's "Read My Lips" and 2005's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," the latter about a thug who longs to be a concert pianist that was a remake of the 1978 American film "Fingers."
With "A Prophet" in 2009, he seemed to cement his reputation as the modern equivalent of Jean-Pierre Melville, creator of super-cool male characters in crisis, having worked with top actors such as Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel and made rising stars of Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim. Which makes the turn from the crime picture to a 21st century romantic melodrama with that much more of a surprise.
Bidegain has collaborated with the filmmaker on a number of projects and acts as Audiard's translator. At times, Audiard, asked a question he has obviously heard before, gives a brief answer to signal Bidegain to go ahead with the longer response he already knows.
"I translate not what he says," added Bidegain with a grin. "I translate what he thinks."
The director himself does respond at times with forceful passion, such as to explain the film's daring use of melodrama, the way in which it can often teeter right on the edge of the ridiculous.
"We had a desire to push it and sometimes take it to the other side," Audiard said, continuing to talk even as Bidegain translated. "Because it's risky, and that's what melodrama is. In a melodrama you always run that risk of ridicule, always on the edge of being grotesque."
All of which leads easily to discussing the film's much-discussed use not just once but twice of the hit song "Firework" performed by Perry. (Less often noted is the vibrant use of a bootleg remix of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper.") Hardly anyone talking about the film can resist bringing up "Firework," as it is used once for its kitsch value during the whale show and another for its feeling of an untapped undercurrent of triumph.
"I have to say that this music, as pop as it is," noted Cotillard, after Audiard playfully authorized her to speak for him, "it carries an emotion."
"There's something about it, absolutely," interjected Schoenaerts.
"So in a way we were lucky to have her," Cotillard continued. "I think the song is a huge hit because of this emotional aspect of it. I remember one woman telling me, 'I would never expect Jacques Audiard would make me cry to a Katy Perry song.'"
After his role in the recent surprise Belgian Oscar nominee "Bullhead," Schoenaerts' performance in "Rust and Bone" could easily set up the Belgian-born 34-year-old as a breakout star along the lines of Michael Fassbender. Bidegain acknowledged that the role of Ali was modified with input from Schoenaerts to make the character less brutal.
"He's not a guy who reflects on himself. Everything is instinctive, everything is a reflex," said Schoenaerts of his character. "When he is tender, it's a reflex, it's not a choice."
Cotillard's challenge was dealing with the techniques involved in making it appear she had lost her legs at the knee. While sometimes it could be as simple as holes in a bed or a wheelchair with a false bottom that allowed her to tuck her own legs underneath herself, for many scenes she wore green knee socks that allowed her legs to be digitally erased in post-production or for the addition of the prosthetic limbs her character learns to use.
Whether "Rust and Bone" continues the trend of recent French box-office successes in the U.S., the film marks a strong, startling turn for its director and two stars and is almost certain to appear on year-end best lists and maybe even push into the mainstream awards consideration reserved for very few foreign language films.
"I can't say people really follow the U.S. box office on French films, except when something really special happens, like 'The Artist' or something like that," Bidegain said. "It really becomes an American adventure for a French film."