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FROM THE FILMMAKERS
In Craig Davidson’s gripping short story collection Rust and Bone, individual lives and destinies are blown out of proportion, intensified by drama and accident. The stories depict a harsh modern world where fighting is the way the physical self finds its place and escapes its fate.
Ali and Stéphanie, our two characters, do not appear in the short stories; we took ideas from Craig Davidson’s stories as a point of departure and wove them into a new story. Davidson’s collection already seems to belong to the prehistory of the project, but the power and brutality of our tale, our desire to use drama, indeed melodrama, to magnify our characters all have their immediate source in those stories.
From the very beginning of our adaptation, we were focused on a kind of cinematography that, for want of a better word, we called ‘expressionist.’ We wanted the power of stark, brutal, clashing images in order to further the melodrama. We had in mind an echo of the Great Depression. We thought of old amateur county-fair films, of the dark reality in those surreal visuals.
It is that kind of aesthetic that constantly guided us as we worked on the screenplay. It’s pitiless, yet it sustains a love story that is the true hero of the film. It shows the world though the eyes of a confused child. It underscores the nobleness of our characters in a world made violent by economic disaster. And it respects Ali and Stéphanie’s stubborn attempts to transcend their condition.
Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Just as the principal characters Stéphanie and Ali are transformed in Rust and Bone, so the film’s director and lead actors went through a discovery process together that was not always easy or predictable.
“When I read the script, I loved Stéphanie right away, but I have to say that I didn’t really understand her,” recalls Marion Cotillard, who stars as the orca trainer who loses her legs. “I was a bit freaked out to confess that to Jacques, and he said, ‘Well you know, it’s the same for me. I don’t know who she is and we’re going to have to take the road together and find her and give her life.’ That was very exciting for me. At the end, there’s still some mystery about Stéphanie.”
That sense of diving headlong into the unexpected touches every aspect of Rust and Bone. “What we were trying to do, with the writing, filming, actors’ performances, editing, music,” says director Jacques Audiard, “was to combine an almost naturalistic realism with its opposite—melodrama, surreal imagery, a heightened experience.” So when Cotillard worried about how to act out Stéphanie’s trauma, Audiard saw her uncertainty as a plus: “Jacques said: ‘That’s the story of the movie: there’s this girl and—bam!—she has no legs! It’s entirely new to Stéphanie, and it’s better if it’s entirely fresh to you.’ ”
Re-imagining the love story
Rust and Bone began as a totally re-imagined departure from its source material. Audiard explains: “I’d read Craig Davidson’s short story collection Rust and Bone with tremendous pleasure. Davidson is a writer of the Crisis. He brutally depicts a modern world that is wobbling; his characters are on the margins, outside society. After A Prophet, a film about confinement, a world of men, without much light, (co-writer) Thomas Bidegain and I were drawn to follow up with a film that would be its opposite: a love story, bathed in light, that would show a woman with a man. Yet we also wanted to explore contemporary chaos and barbarism without addressing them head-on. The contrasts fascinated us—but there isn’t a love story in Craig Davidson’s collection, so we invented it.”
Before love in this story, though, comes pain. As Ali and Stéphanie bring each other back to life, they navigate a world of violence and scarred emotions. Audiard worked with his actors to portray the relationship with powerful resonance.
“Audiard is constantly looking for the life in the moment itself,” says Matthias Schoenaerts (pronounced shuh-nar). “He’s not about executing what he wrote, he’s constantly on the lookout for “how can life change what I wrote?” Ali is not always the most sympathetic guy; the audience isn’t going to identify with him straight away. But there’s something about his sincerity, his simplicity, that’s genuinely attractive. We rehearsed and improvised, trying out darker, rougher ways to play Ali. Finally, we struck on an almost childlike streak in Ali which made the character suddenly more real to us, more believable as someone Stéphanie could love. That juvenile energy breathed life into him. Otherwise he’s this social, self-aware character that knows what shit he’s in and starts being depressed about it, and we didn’t want that at all. Ali goes from being an emotional zero to surrendering to love. He also learns to love his child. Audiard has a way of making characters so profound and so multilayered. He’s truly an actor’s director, who works with the actors very collaboratively to bring out those shades.”
Cotillard concurs. “I’ve worked with amazing directors,” she says, “But the thing with Jacques is you feel the love that he has for his story and the characters—it’s so strong, it’s very, very inspiring. Audiard is a poet.”
Realism and its opposites
Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who also shot A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, evoke a harshly commercialized setting of urban strips, big-box retail, the anonymous disco, the touristy orca show—but they also make the audience feel the liberating sensation of sun and seawater on Stéphanie’s body, the physicality and adrenaline of sex and combat. Gritty social realism slides into dreamlike imagery, as Audiard describes: “We were obsessed with the idea that the strength of the images would render this painting of passions, extreme situations, extreme feelings. We wanted to find a brutal and contrasting aesthetic. We talked about neo-expressionism, Tod Browning’s Freaks, the films of Lon Chaney, the circus and fairground films of the Great Depression, in which the strangeness of the visuals sublimates the blackness of reality. We talked about monstrous tales. And about Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which begins with a father being arrested in front of his son because he has stolen in order to feed them. Are those films melodramas? Are they expressionistic? We don’t have a lexicon for that.” Like Fontaine, many key crew members—producers, editor, music composer, art director, casting, production designers—are longtime collaborators on Audiard’s films.
As actors, both Cotillard and Schoenaerts had to inhabit bodies under extreme physical duress. “I researched and I watched videos of amputees,” says Cotillard, “But I got more out of a direction Jacques gave me. He told me, “Sometimes part of her refuses the situation so sometimes she will try to stand up and she will forget that she has no legs and she will fall.” You don’t see that onscreen but it made me feel the part.” Technically, the amputations are achieved by CGI, but to Cotillard, “That’s the least interesting part, though the technical people did amazing work. What matters is the flesh, bones, sexual, violent physicality.”
Schoenaerts trained intensively for his role as a kickboxing combatant, but not to achieve the conventional hero’s ripped physique: “I worked out every day, had to get my weight back up after Bullhead. Jacques had a very specific idea of the physique that Ali should have—he should be strong but not trained. Here’s a guy who has been boxing for years but then dropped out and started gaining weight, he has a belly. We didn’t want him to look too fit or well trained, we wanted him to look a little bit unhealthy. He’s a guy who doesn’t have the means to be eating right and training properly and his appearance should make that clear.”
About his character’s bare-fisted fighting, Schoenaerts says: “When you have nothing what is there left to sell? There’s your body, so he fights. And somehow he needs the pain. The fights are painful but they’re very sensory. He’s unable to feel his emotional level, but the fights bring it to life, that’s where he feels he has a body. When he hits or gets hit he feels it, there’s something happening. And then Stephanie just breaks his heart open.”
The sexual chemistry between Ali and Stéphanie transcends her disability. Says Audiard, “Personally, I perceived the erotic nature of the situation quite quickly. Let me explain: there are two problems facing fiction films, two areas where they come up short: violence leading to death, because you know that they’re not going to kill the actor; and sex, because you know that the sighs and pleasure are a sham – plus, it’s very awkward to film. For a long time I’ve pondered the problem of the representation of physical love. This story allows me to avoid the problem of representation of the sexual act. When Ali takes Stéphanie on his back, it’s all about sex. So when they’re in bed, I no longer have to linger on the faces, to believe the faces; I believe what the woman is revealing of herself, her infirmity, and it’s like she’s even more naked.”
As Schoenaerts says, “Of course I forgot her legs. Ali forgets, so I forgot.”
The princess and the fighter
“I can’t imagine who else could have played Stéphanie, just as I can’t imagine who else could have played Piaf in La Vie en rose,” says Audiard. “There’s a virile authority to her acting, and at the same time she exudes sexuality. She’s very seductive. There’s another reason: I’m not forgetting that she’s extremely famous. And that fame adds to the fiction. When her legs are amputated, it’s a cinematic convention: we know it’s a famous actress playing a role. She’s a princess, a princess who falls from on high.”
Audiard continues: “When I saw Bullhead, I immediately wanted to meet Matthias. We had very little time to prep. Marion focused her work on her handicap and the killer whales, and Mathias on the fights. For her, the arc was difficult but clear: she is someone on the path to recovery. With Mathias, we had to work more on his character: in the script, Ali was coarser. He couldn’t be too dim, he had to attract Stéphanie’s gaze, there had to be a basis for seduction and then love.”
The seemingly positive wrap-up—Ali’s boxing triumph, Sam and Stéphanie at his side—is mitigated by the voice-over which tells of the enduring pain in Ali’s shattered hands. As Schoenaerts sees it, “We just watched a film for one and a half hours where we saw what these two human beings are and what they went through. They’re still going to have to deal with that—it’s not over. They still have pain, they still have to bring up the kid, she still has to deal with her handicap. But they can share it and be a support to one another, so it’s a good ending but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a classical happy ending.”
Audiard wonders, “What would she have become if she hadn’t had that accident? She probably would have remained the somewhat arrogant princess that she was, unable to truly love someone. ‘Thanks’ to her infirmity, and because Ali never looks at her with pity or compassion, she allows herself to let go and experiences something she would otherwise never have known.”
For Cotillard, her character’s loss is a revelation. “When there’s nothing left, it’s just you, your soul, and what’s deep inside of you. Will you be able to face it or will you be too afraid to face it? We see the encounter of two naked souls who surrender to this nudity. That’s the beauty of this story and these people.”
Seeing it on the screen: Author Craig Davidson on Rust and Bone
An excerpt from author Craig Davidson’s article Seeing it on the screen about Jacques Audiard’s transformative take on his short-story collection:
It all started when I knocked a glass of water on to a film director’s hat.
A lovely chapeau. Brushed felt. The director was French; his name was Jacques Audiard. The hat was kind of his trademark. I’d been sitting in La Rotonde, a swanky Parisian café; in attendance were Audiard, my French editor Francis Geffard, and me, the clumsy foreign clown — or as the French might say, le bozo.
Audiard had read my story collection, Rust and Bone. He wanted to option it and I wanted to let him. He was especially taken with two stories: “27 Bones,” concerning a once-promising amateur boxer whose life devolves into a series of underground bare-knuckle fights; and “Rocket Ride,” a story about a killer whale trainer who gets his leg torn off by an aggrieved orca.
Jacques’ notion was to braid these stories together, align the main characters by connecting their physical weaknesses — the boxer has brittle hands that keep breaking; the trainer has no leg — to the way their lives unfold afterwards. It was a connection that, to be honest, I’d not seen while writing it. I found it thrilling that he’d found an inroad I’d never glimpsed.
But our discussion of such complex emotional terrain was made difficult by the fact my French stinks and Audiard’s English was marginally better. Mostly, Francis and Jacques spoke. I drank beer too fast and tried to look suave and then I knocked Jacques’ eau de gaz on to his exquisite hat and the meeting ended, as meetings tend to when one party makes a roaring buffoon of himself.
He did option the book, however. The option money spent well, as money tends to. I never expected much else. Oh, I’d heard the stats: less than 5% of literary properties make it to the screen, et cetera et cetera. But the production company renewed the option. Next: rumours a script had been written. Stars had been attached. Marion Cotillard — really?
Still, I never quite believed. I figured it’d fall apart somehow. But one thing flowed into the next and then one day I was watching the trailer and thinking: Huh, I guess they really made it.
Some people will want to know: How does it feel to have a film made out of something you wrote?
The answer is: pretty darn good! I’ve been fantastically fortunate. I’m not worried it’ll be as good as my book — I know for a fact it’ll be better. I wrote it when I was in my 20s. I was a ballsy writer. That’s what drew Jacques to it: the action, the frenetic-ness of it, the fact that I write in fully-formed scenes that unravel like a movie — a tribute to how much films have shaped my writing style. But the book also reflects a youthful viewpoint that misses much of the variance and beauty of life that are so clear to me now.
People have asked how it feels to have my book reworked and fitted to the screen — did it bother me that someone was monkeying around with my stories? They wondered if I considered flying to France, stalking around the set shaking my fist screaming: “This isn’t my VISION! You’re perverting it all!”
The thought never crossed my mind. My investment in the film has been minimal: I simply provided the seed. Yes, there have been plot and character changes: the male protagonist of “Rocket Ride” becomes Marion Cotillard, for example (and I’m weirdly OK with that!).
But as I said, the film will outshine the book. Having read the script, I can tell you Audiard has elevated it to something I simply wasn’t capable of expressing back when I wrote it. The man is at the height of his powers. Me? Hopefully I’m just warming up. Jacques found such wonderful connections, sharpened the characters and gave the film something I struggle with: a deep romantic context. It’s a love story, albeit a tortured one. He’s taken what the book gave him and shaped it into a deeper resonance.
I’ll get a DVD screener and sit down with my folks, my girlfriend and my brother and a few close friends. We’ll order a pizza, crack a case of beer and watch that sucker. And it’ll matter deeply to me that I watch it with just those people, as they’re the ones who were with me before it was even a possibility — supporting my foolish endeavour to be a writer without any inkling that something this cool might ever come of it.
National Post, May 15, 2012