(Jacques Audiard, 2012)
Audiard here takes two of the stories from Craig Davidson's fine collection, "Rust and Bone", and fuses them into one gritty, emotional melodrama. That fusion shouldn't really work. The stories - one about a bare knuckle boxer, the other about an Orca trainer injured by an animal - are utterly different in tone and setting. But it helps that Audiard keeps few of the details from Davidson, and that so much of the story of this film is of his own invention, expanding upon what he has adapted from the book.
He transforms the material into a bruising love story. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is newly arrived on the French Riviera with his young son. They stay with his sister while he moves between jobs - as a bouncer and a security guard. Working at a club he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) an attractive, possibly dangerous party girl. Later, she is crippled by an accident at work, and she contacts Ali again. Slowly, a strange relationship forms between them as both seek to find themselves once more.
The leads are crucial to the success of this film. Cotillard has more of the standout moments - her discovery that her legs are gone, her sexual reawakening and excitement at Ali's physicality - and she plays each with a sensitivity and rawness of emotion that is powerful and believable, but Schoenaerts is a fitting partner for her, making Ali a wounded brute, capable of surprising sensitivity and feeling yet also never far from an explosion. They make the union between the characters feel inevitable and fascinating.
Then there is Audiard's evolving style. He finds a key to each scene which makes it ring with a visceral sense of the truth of the moment - whether its the texture of the ground upon which Ali is fighting, a tooth spinning onto it, or the way he and Stephanie pant together during sex, or her flashes of memory of her accident, the water swirling with debris and blood. Every sequence has this exhilarating pulse of life in it. Some moments feel almost like the Dardennes tackling a torrid melodrama, others recall Michael Mann in their sensual poetry and attention to the fleeting beauty of the everyday. His use of sound is sublime too, and the soundtrack choices are particularly perfect, from Katy Perry to Bon Iver, each amplifying the emotional impact of the visuals they play over.
That is the main impression of any Audiard film; the emotion. Once the love story kicks in here, the muted chemistry between the principals becomes something far more powerful and intense, and the fine cast here make those feelings sting. The lovely moment when Stephanie returns to the Ocean Park to see old friends and communes with her Orca through glass is a great example of his art - it is beautiful, yes, with a natural sense of cinema, but it also feels emotionally wrenching. Just like this film, then.