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AFI Fest 2012: “Rust and Bone,” “Ginger & Rosa”

Rust and Bone is one of those movies that critics may well adore precisely because of one key trait – you rarely know what’s going to happen next. This is a trait that could be overrated by critics simply because we see so much, and become aware not only of the common cliches but the uncommon ones too, to the point where any film that can surprise us is a rare thing. For those who go to just a movie or two a year, and may not realize, for example, that in a big-budget action movie, any seemingly useless trivia dropped early on will always be key to saving the world later, this probably isn’t an issue.

That said, Rust and Bone is also an epic, but an emotional one – a journey of two broken people to become all of which they are truly capable after braving intense trials and navigating tough terrain… of the soul, not some alien planet. Matthias Schoenarts, best known as the bull-head from, uh, Bullhead, is Ali, a broke former boxer with mild criminal tendencies and a five year-old son in tow. Moving to Antibes to impinge upon his sister’s hospitality, he takes a job as a nightclub bouncer, where he saves beautiful, intelligent Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) from an unwarranted beatdown. Having thusly gotten off to a decent start, Ali blows it by telling her she’s dressed like a whore – though in a weird way, this demonstrates a positive lack of pretense on his part.

It turns out she’s an orca trainer at a marine theme park, and it isn’t long before a terrible accident leaves her permanently injured. Perhaps because he protected her once, or because he’s incapable of pretense, she calls Ali and the two bond – he engaging her in the kind of purely sexual relationship many men might dodge due to handicap-squeamishness, and she becoming his manager for unsanctioned backyard MMA fights. Meanwhile, as Ali’s caring for Stephanie grows, he becomes ever more irresponsible as a family man.

Much like The Sessions, the “handicapped” sex here often feels like a metaphor for the emotional handicaps we place upon ourselves as barriers to intimacy – since this is based on short fiction rather than The Sessions‘ true-life story, it’s safer to say that it’s the case here. Like that film, though, it delivers some of the hottest onscreen intimacy of the year, and not just because both leads are great-looking. It’s because the desire to be desirable, to feel anything, is universal – Ali fights like he fucks, in both cases needing to feel alive, and only when he has satiated this appetite can he move on to deeper connections. Stephanie is the reverse, enjoying being objectified for the first time in her life because she suddenly knows what it’s like not to be in most people’s eyes.

But this isn’t just a sex movie – Ali goes further into crime and alienation, and there’s a crucial scene near the end where the suspense is absolutely unbearable: it’s clear something bad is about to happen, and what it’s going to be… just not when director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is going to pull the trigger, and how hard he’s going to hit. And then – minor thematic spoiler – it hurts. Quite a bit. Which is not to imply that this whole movie is a downer – it’s about engaging the downers and feeling alive at the end. If your date’s okay with a movie that goes to some pretty dark places along the way, it’s a pretty great couples movie, even if it does reinforce the stereotype that even smart and sexy women will go for the musclehead every time. And it manages to use Katy Perry’s “Firework” better than any other movie to date, including the Katy Perry movie (I’m actually guessing on that last one, which I didn’t see. But I can’t imagine it could be better).

Less feel-good, on the other hand, is Ginger & Rosa, which not only packs a punch but made me actively want to punch the movie’s most despicable character, an irresponsible ’60s dad (Alessandro Nivola) who not only bangs his teenage daughter’s best friend, but then has the nerve to angrily justify it by talk of rebelling against conformity and comparisons to conscientious objection against the draft. Honestly, it’s difficult to review this one for others because the film in its own way has some uncanny parallels with my own life, even though I grew up in a different decade, am not a teenage girl, and neither parent slept with a friend of mine. Just so that’s out of the way.

Things open with a nuclear explosion and footage of Hiroshima in 1945, then cut to two mothers in England simultaneously giving birth. Their new daughters become friends, though Ginger’s mother Nat (Christina Hendricks, looking uncomfortably like she’s had some work done) is concerned that the more rebellious Rosa (impressive newcomer Alice Englert, holding her own against many more acclaimed folks)), whose dad long ago abandoned the family, is a bad example for Ginger (Elle Fanning), whose actual name is something else entirely but I won’t spoil that. That she has ginger hair is what gives her the name she’s known by.

For the rest of the story, we are in 1962, and the UK radio stations are endlessly going on about the prospects of nuclear war (they love to be pessimistic like that; ’twas just so in the ’80s when I was growing up as well). And if you can tell that by the end of the movie the Cuban Missile Crisis will come into play, well, then you not only know your dates but you’re also clearly one of the more frequent moviegoers alluded to up top.

The parents’ generation also includes Ginger’s apparently gay godfather (Timothy Spall) and secondary American godfather (Oliver Platt) who may be godfather #1′s lover, or that of radical feminist May (Annette Bening), or both. The movie doesn’t bother to tell, and the only reason we’d ask is to clarify the point in a review. Since it’s the ’60s onscreen, one can and should assume anything goes. And director Sally Potter isn’t monolithically opposed to this, though it’s easy to say how some on the right could consider it a tale sympathetic to their cause: Nivola’s irresponsible Roland was a conscientious objector even in the “good” war that was WWII and did time for it, while Spall’s equally pacifist character opted to drive an ambulance as alternative service; and it’s clear the “anything goes” atmosphere causes little but hurt to the extent that it defies essential family ingredients.

As for the nuclear issue, it is made clear that Ginger’s overwhelming fear may be rooted in more mundane anxiety about her family falling to pieces – she tries turning to prayer for this, while Rosa insists that nothing can be done and true love should be sought instead, even as her adolescent concept of true love proves easily manipulated by older academics. I should note that I can strongly relate to some of this, though the full details would be a distraction here. It is infuriating to see adults who should know better casually stoking fears rather than defusing them; all their talk of letting children think for themselves is lip-service in the face of using the two girls – sometimes subconsciously, other times not – in furtherance of grown-up agendas.

I don’t know how autobiographical this is to Potter, and I don’t wish to look it up because I don’t want it to influence me one way or the other – I know, for example that Fanning and Hendricks don’t usually speak in English accents, but I’d never guess it by watching. It all feels true, and there’s no need to ruin that by saying if it is or isn’t.

Just don’t look for it to end as cleanly as the Cold War. That proved to be a waste of worrying in the end, didn’t it? Ginger & Rosa does not.

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