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Rust and Bone is a meet cute story about a double amputee who has a romance with a mixed martial arts fighter and they change each other (I know, I know, it sounds like a logline for a high concept film that any devotee of Save the Cat would be salivating over—but believe me, it’s far too original and fresh to be mentioned in the same sentence as that book, which I guess I’ve already done—shoot). 
I suppose one might describe it as the distaff version of The Intouchables, the movie about the privileged white quadriplegic who hires a minority to help him and they change each other.  But perhaps it would be better to compare it to The Sessions, the comedy about the guy in the iron lung who wants to lose his virginity so he hires a sex surrogate and they change each other (are you sensing a leit motif here?).  That might be a slightly better fit because, whereas The Intouchables is safe, cuddly and as formulaic as a teddy bear (and proved that the French are just as able to create middle brow entertainment as the Americans–The Help, anyone?), The Sessions uses its edgy and dark humor to hide a bitterness and anger at the way God has set up the world which, believe me, is much closer to the style and attitude of Rust and Bone.
Rust and Bone is written by Jacques Audiard (who also directed) and Thomas Bidegain (Craig Davidson wrote the story).  Both are rising stars in France.  Audiard is also known for The Beat that My Heart Skipped (the far superior remake of James Toback’s Fingers) and The Prophet (about the rise of a young Arab man from fresh prison meat to the head of organized crime—a remarkable film also co-written by Bidegain).   Bidegain most recently co-wrote the movie Our Children which has the same actors as in A Prophet.
The leads in Rust and Bone are Stephanie, played by Marion (La Vie en Rose) Cotillard, as a trainer at an aquarium who loses her legs after a platform collapses and sends her into a tank of killer whales, and  Alain, Matthais (Bullhead) Schoenarts, as the fighter who tends to work on instinct without fully understanding how his actions affect other people (so animal instinct is he, that when Cotillard mentions that she is not sure she is able to be sexually responsive, Schoenarts casually asks if she wants to “fuck” to see; he’s not being flirtatious, he’s not being coy; he’s flat out asking in as practical and everyday manner as one could; I suppose one should be repulsed, but instead, one is more often won over by his attitude than not).   Cotillard brings those Bette Davis/Jeanne Moreau eyes of hers to the proceedings and one can’t help but melt when you see them.  Schoenarts brings the same bullheadness he brought to Bullhead.  They have a quite palpable chemistry between them.    Whatever else you may think of the film, you can’t deny the intensity of their scenes together. 
The, it  has to be admitted, somewhat manipulative plot is one of those that tends to constantly change directions and take off on odd forks in the road, yet is never unbelievable or dramatically unsatisfying.  It makes sense in all its chutes and ladders configurations.  The story is basically a converging of two popular fairy tales.  On one hand, we have Beauty and the Beast with Stephanie as the beauty who tames Alain’s beast and helps him realize that he can care for others and doesn’t have to act on his bestial nature.  The other is The Little Mermaid in which a woman gains her legs because of her love for a prince.  I’m not sure that either one of them have quite been told the way they have here, but in the end, the story reaches an emotional depth that’s not easy to shake off.
What Audiard and Bidegain do here is bring a beauty to all the ugliness that is taking place.  No matter how unpleasant the world of Stephanie and Alain gets, the filmmakers reveal that underneath it all there’s something more going on.  This is a story about two people who have had awful things happen to them or even do awful things, but both have souls that defy the situation.  This is a world that is a challenge to exist in, that is not often sympathetic to those who live in it, yet people can come together and create something more from it.  It’s not always an easy film to watch, but it is a moving and rewarding one.

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of The White Ribbon and A Prophet

Near the end of The White Ribbon, the great Austrian director Michael (Code: Unknown, Cache) Haneke’s most recent film, a schoolteacher tells a group of children, “There’s something you’re not telling me”. As much as I admire Haneke, in the end I wanted to say the same thing to him. The film, I’m afraid, went over my head, and I felt as if there was something that Haneke just wasn’t letting me in on. It takes place just before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI. Over the course of a year, some odd things happen in a small German town. It begins when someone strings a wire across two trees so that it will trip a doctor returning home on his horse; serious injuries occur. Over the course of a year, a woman dies accidentally; the very young son of the local Baron is abducted and beaten; a baby almost dies because a window is left open; someone commits suicide; a retarded little boy is then abducted and tortured; etc., etc. You know there’s something wrong from the first moment when you see the children of the local pastor and they all look like the cold, blond children from Village of the Damned. The origin of the evil is unclear. On one side is the pastor who is severely strict with his children and sexually repressive; on the other is the Doctor, who though not portrayed as an atheist, does not seem to attend church—he sexually abuses his daughter and sexually humiliates his mistress. In spite of what seems like a lot of awful things happening, they happen over such a long course of time and sometimes seem to have no relation to each other, that I found little tension to the story. A narrator suggests that things are festering in the village and have been for some time; I’m glad he told me, because I don’t think I would have known otherwise. The plot ends without an explanation as to who did some of what happened; this would have been fine if that had been the intent of Haneke, to say that the origin of evil is something we don’t understand. But I’m not convinced that that’s what he was trying to say. It seems to come closer to an idea that sexual repression and sexual hypocrisy is what causes evil, but I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that just because someone is forbidden to masturbate, Europe goes to war. It does look great, though. The bleak and striking black and white photography, greatly celebrated, is by Christian Berger.

A Prophet, the thrilling new film from Jacques Audiard (who also gave us The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has been compared by some to the Godfather. I think a more apt comparison is to Scarface since A Prophet is the story of a teenager sent to an adult jail, a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern background, and then climbs the ranks of the Corsican Mob and becomes head honcho. It’s not a particularly happy movie. The lead character of Malik, in a magnificent performance by Tahar Rahim, has little control over his life once he enters this prison for six years. The Corsican mob, headed by Cesar (an equally compelling performance by Niels Arestrup), needs a Middle Eastern prisoner, a witness in a trial, killed, so he forces Malik to do it or die himself. After that, Malik becomes Cesar’s lapdog, but he slowly gets an education and because he can stride both sides of the narrow world due to his Muslim background and his connections to the Corsicans, he learns how to play one against the other until he betrays Cesar and takes over Rome (the scene of Malik’s final triumph over Cesar in the prison yard is a powerful moment). Malik’s journey is an exciting one. The screenplay, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain form an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, has a Shakespearian structure out of something like Richard III or King John and could almost be a how to manual for climbing the French Mafia ladder. One could question whether someone who can’t even read could suddenly have an epiphany and educate himself enough to do what Malik does here, but the story is too fascinating to make one care. The world the authors paint is bleak and the indictment of the French penal system is just as dark as Kafka’s. The prison is not run by the guards and warden, it’s run by the mob, and all programs set up to help reform the prisoners (like giving them a basic education or work leave) are just ways to help criminals become better at what they do (I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Dorothy). It’s a very nihilistic view of the world; evil runs everything, and if we are untouched by it, we are merely lucky. At the same time, there’s something a little contradictory here. If evil is so controlling, then it may be unclear how the head of the Corsican mob ended up in jail probably to die there.