The Films of 2012: Three short takes

A romantic drama about the unlikely bond that forms between a down-on-his-luck single dad (Matthias Schoenaerts) and an animal trainer (Marion Cotillard) who suffers a debilitating accident, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (pictured above) is haphazardly plotted and often contrived, but involving.  Its theme is the fragility—and the resilience—of the human body, as Cotillard’s character Stephanie struggles to cope with the loss of her legs and the brutish Ali (Schoenaerts), who once trained as a boxer, moonlights as a bum-fighter.  The film takes more than its fair share of leaps in narrative logic, especially in its final third, and the ending is pure Hollywood.  The love scenes surpass those between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions, though: they’re honest in the way that they deal with sex and disability while still maintaining a raw erotic power that the other film lacks.  Praise must also go to Cotillard for a wrenching and graceful performance, one of the year’s best, as the wounded Stephanie.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—a co-winner (with The Kid with the Bike) of the 2011 Grand Prix at Cannes—is a spare, atmospheric murder mystery, most of which unfolds over the course of a long journey through the Turkish countryside in the middle of the night, as two murder suspects lead police officials and a doctor to the body of their alleged victim.  Ceylan’s shots of the Turkish landscape are luminous, even if we’re ultimately denied a narrative payoff to this most meditative of police procedurals.  By the two-hour mark the film’s ambiguities have begun to feel grating rather than intriguing.  In the end we’re left feeling more or less baffled by the whole thing and no longer even sure why we’re supposed to care.

The whole time I was watching Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, I kept thinking about how much it reminded me of Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet (1963); then I saw in the end credits that it had been “freely adapted” from the same novel.  Trier moves the story to modern-day Norway and makes his anguished, suicidal hero a recovering drug addict who, over the course of a single day away from his rehab center, falls into a helpless state of despair.  Trier’s Oslo is a city in decline, populated mostly by members of a complacent, quietly unhappy bourgeoisie, defined largely by cultural artifacts imported from the U.S.  In this context, Anders’ (Anders Danielsen Lie) self-destruction comes to seem as much an act of political resistance as one of emotional desperation.  It’s a nervy, claustrophobic, finely composed film.  Just don’t go in expecting a happy ending.

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