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Cannes '12, Day Two: The latest from the director of A Prophet, plus Michel Gondry gets on the bus

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As a general rule, I try to learn as little as possible about the films here before I see them. Keeps the experience pure, cuts down on potentially troublesome preconceptions, all that worthy stuff. Tabula rasa is my new jam. So all I knew about Rust And Bone was that it’s the latest effort by Jacques Audiard—whose last picture, A Prophet, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes ‘09—and that it stars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and rising Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead). Which is a good thing, because my defenses would surely have gone up had I been aware in advance that Cotillard plays an orca trainer at Marineland who loses both of her legs just above the knee almost as soon as she’s introduced. (“Bitten off by a killer whale?” you’re no doubt wondering; Audiard shoots the accident so impressionistically that I’m not really sure. Might just have been badly injured and amputated.) In the hospital, Cotillard freaks out (understandably) when she awakens and sees her bandaged stumps, and later steals a scalpel from a nurse’s tray in an attempt to commit suicide. But she’s also kept the number of a stoic club bouncer (Schoenaerts) who drove her home once, and seems to understand instinctively that his utter lack of pity is just what she needs on the long road to recovery. Let the healing begin…

Except that’s not what Audiard is up to, thankfully. (The film is very loosely adapted from a collection of short stories by Craig Davidson, though the two main characters are entirely invented.) Cotillard zips through the stages of grief with lightning speed, arriving at wholehearted acceptance (and getting nifty prosthetic legs) with well over an hour of movie left to go. Schoenaerts, meanwhile, remains bizarrely opaque, even though he’s dealing with his motherless five-year-old son, a series of brutal underground boxing matches, and a side career installing illegal surveillance cameras in retail stores. His relationship with Cotillard turns sexual, but almost clinically so—he offers to bang her anytime he’s “operational,” as if he were a physical therapist with a very busy schedule. Both actors are tremendous—especially Schoenaerts, in an amazingly tricky role—and the special effects are seamless enough to make Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan look like a cheap parlor trick, but it’s mostly the inversion of genre expectations that compels. Rust and Bone does turn out to be the schematic, conventional story of a horribly disabled person who gradually learns how to live again. That the disabled person isn’t who we naturally assume makes it just novel enough to seem somewhat fresh. Grade: B


Apparently concerned that double-amputee sex wouldn’t satisfy the day’s kink quotient, Cannes also screened Paradise: Love,the first film in a Three Colors-esque trilogy by Austria’s Ulrich Seidl. (The other two, Faith and Hope, are already in the can; it was originally intended to be a single five-hour epic.) Like Laurent Cantet’s ill-received Heading South, it explores the grotesque mutual exploitation between middle-aged white women and impoverished young “beach boys,” this time in Kenya rather than Haiti. And like Heading South, it never really succeeds in complicating an endless series of overtly icky transactions. Stage actress Margarethe Tiesel gives a shrewd, fearless performance (where, yes, “fearless” means she gets naked a lot, though it presumably takes more courage when you’re 53 and obese), but her casual, thoughtless racism delivers exactly what you’d expect from Seidl, whose films (Dog Days, Import Export) have always displayed a penchant for methodical cruelty. And watching her try to find a young man who’s more interested in her than in her pocketbook is like seeing the Nigerian Scam dramatized over and over again, with only the most negligible of variations. Ultimately, Paradise: Love seems interested only in making you wince, not in making you think. Let’s hope the other two chapters—involving a Catholic missionary and a diet camp—are less monotonous. Grade: C+

Over in the Fortnight, Michel Gondry beat a pointed retreat from the noisy, empty spectacle of The Green Hornet, though not from America. The We and the I takes place almost entirely on a Bronx city bus occupied by roughly two dozen teenagers—mostly black and Hispanic—on their way home from the last day of school. There are three bullies who torment everyone else from the back row of seats; two girls planning an exclusive Sweet 16 party; a shy boy trying to work up the nerve to ask his crush out on a date (to see a Vin Diesel movie, though this film seems to be set in the present); the loner who spends the entire trip sketching everybody else in his notepad; and, of course, this being a Gondry film, some dude with Jesus locks who magically appears in a nimbus of light at one point to settle a beef. End credits reveal that Gondry created the film in collaboration with a Bronx community center, and that all the kids are playing characters with their own names, presumably based largely on themselves. But while few of these amateurs can act, or demonstrate any real skill at light improv, collectively they possess a rowdy energy that’s appealing even when individual jokes and subplots sputter. Gondry could probably have made a terrific short from this material (which would have ducked the question of why the last kids to exit the bus apparently live 50+ miles from their high school, commuting over 90 minutes). At feature length, however, it feels inordinately unfocused, and a last-minute swerve into earnest speechifying doesn’t help. Still, I’d rather see Gondry experiment with small-scale movies like this than squander his creativity on Hollywood superhero spoofs. Grade: C+


Tomorrow: The new film from previous Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), plus an Italian take on reality TV and a nearly three-hour movie about a transsexual. I think.