Hotly anticipated, and already heavily raved by the French press before it bowed on the Croisette on Thursday, the new film by Jacques Audiard (ICS Award winner in 2011 for A Prophet) delivers on all levels. The film provides an unflinching and raw look at the difficult relationship between an odd couple of emotionally, and in one case physically, crippled people. While it’s dangerous to bandy about the word ‘austerity’ in economical times like these, with the film business not exactly known for its adherence to the concept, Audiard certainly knows how to apply austerity to his films. All excess fat is cut from the narrative bones, with hardly any background provided for the characters. We don’t need it, and that’s in part due to winning performances by the film’s leads, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, whose subtle work evokes everything we need to know about their characters without resorting to heavy exposition.
We first meet Schoenaerts’ character Ali as he travels with his five-year-old son Sam towards the south of France, where his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband take in the moneyless pair. Ali finds a job as a bouncer, and life is slowly starting to look up for him. He meets Stéphanie (Cotillard) when she is involved in a brawl outside the club where he’s working. He takes her home, and an immediate connection between the two is felt, but other than leaving his phone number behind, nothing happens. The focus then shifts to Stéphanie, whom we follow in her day job as an orca trainer. To his credit, Audiard manages to introduce her job and the ensuing work accident (when Stéphanie loses her lower legs) in a single sequence, again doing without any unnecessary build-up and preventing melodrama from seeping in, an approach that he uses throughout the whole film. In the aftermath of the accident, Stéphanie descends into a depression, and when she hits rock bottom she calls the number Ali left her. The uncomplicated and blunt Ali is just what she needs. She is not looking for pity, and she finds his indifference to her situation refreshing. In most other films an uplifting relationship would develop between these two, but Audiard understands that his leading characters are too jaded and emotionally inept to immediately go that route: Stéphanie hates men and loathes herself, and Ali steers clear of any deeper commitment with women. Still, the two find a certain solace in each other, even if their bond is mostly based on sex. As soon as Stéphanie confronts Ali about leaving her at a party for a one-night stand with another girl, he retracts.
Other plot strands try to deepen Ali’s character, but they don’t always work. When he’s shown starting to make money as an illegal prize fighter, it highlights the amount of pent-up aggression in the character, which can come out in bursts, even at home. Seeing Schoenaerts in these scenes is like watching a force of nature, even if he’s not quite the same size anymore as he was in Bullhead. Another sequence where he installs security cameras results in damage to one of his loved ones, but it doesn’t affect our view of Ali, and this part of the tale is less effective. Meanwhile, Stéphanie gets new (mechanical) legs, and we see her confidence build, but as the scene where she’s ditched at the party shows, that confidence does not take away her self-loathing and hatred.
One of the film’s strengths is the restraint Audiard employs in showing the interaction between his leads and what they have in terms of a relationship. He does away with any sentimentality or melodrama, which the film could have easily devolved into in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, he uses the cinematography, sound design and editing to emphasize the fragile and chaotic bond between his two main characters. The camera moves frantically, the image sometimes going out of focus. The sound often drowns out parts of the dialogue, and the editing goes from rapid-fire to slow and back. As their friendship becomes more stable, so do these technical aspects of the film. Audiard manages to stay away from manipulating his audience most of the time, coming closest when Stéphanie returns to the aquarium and communicates with one of the killer whales through hand and arm movements. But even then the parallel between the big mammal and Ali is abundantly clear.
The French helmer also manages to extract powerhouse performances from his main stars. We already knew that Cotillard was a great actress, but this may be her best performance to date. The subtlety and nuance in the performance is impressive, and her naturalism is just what the role requires. Cotillard manages to do a lot with just a look or even just changing her body tension. She is closely matched by a brooding performance by Schoenaerts, in many ways not dissimilar to his role in Bullhead. He, too, does not have to rely on any ‘big’ acting moments, but instead uses his eyes and his demeanor to convey the emotional state of Ali, a man of few words as it is. It should be noted that the chemistry between the two is there in spades.
Final mention should go to the excellent CGI work to make Cotillard’s legs disappear. We are sometimes left wondering just how the filmmakers accomplished that; an early scene in the ocean is particularly impressive. It’s a shame work like this is often overlooked come awards time.