Hot French double-amputee on bare-knuckle boxer sex. Fleshy Austrian cougar cycles between multiple young, fit African gigolos.
Loglines of highly-specific fetish porn, or of movies premiering Thursday in the Cannes Film Festival main competition?
Perhaps both, but definitely the latter: Oscar winner Marion Cotillard plays the fetching legless woman opposite Bullhead stud Matthias Schoenaerts in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, while Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl explores the hangover of colonialism through sex tourism in the (ironic title alert!) Paradise (Love).French filmmaker Audiard has emerged as an international cinema titan over the past decade or so, received as a high artist for playing within the essentially lowbrow genre of the urban crime film, including his 2005 remake of James Toback's Fingers, The Beat That My Heart Skipped; and A Prophet, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar the following year.
What sets an Audiard film apart from, say, your average Jason Statham flick (a brand of high-low art that doesn't generally premiere at Cannes)? Let's be reductive, and say it's some combination of an awareness of intractable class stratification and racial tension in contemporary France; moody, melodramatic aesthetics, often propelled by impeccably chosen pop cues; and action that takes a backseat to character study, with not-quite-stars cast as enigmatic anti-heroes who do bad things but are coded sympathetically, as if they're the rare sensitive souls who manage to do what it takes to thrive within inherently fucked-up social systems.
What I've to this point found alternately fascinating and troubling about Audiard's films is the manipulation involved in this coding, the cinematic alchemy that causes a viewer to believe in a character's heroism, even as the film offers ample evidence that he's actually a villain. Rust and Bone is an incredibly manipulative, surface-oriented, impressionistic film, but it's also plainly about surfaces -- the ways in which impressions can be both misleading and not without truth, as manifested within a slow-building, mutually manipulative relationship between two people who derive a kind of high from the power their own bodies have on other people.
Ali (Schoenaerts), a well-built amateur boxer, rescues his five year-old son from his drug-dealing mom, and the two move in with Ali's sister in Antibes. Ali gets a job as a security guard at a nightclub, where he breaks up a tussle and ends up giving a ride home to Stephanie (Cotillard) -- a posh-looking knockout who came to the club alone, and, for reasons not quite clear, leaves with a bloody nose.
The next day, Stephanie, captain of a killer whale show at a Sea World-style marine park, is injured in a horrible accident at work, and she wakes up with both her legs cut off at the knee. Depressed and physically helpless, she calls Ali -- who has proven to be nothing if not physically capable -- and the two develop an initially chaste friendship, which changes one day when Ali asks, "You want to fuck?" She answers in the affirmative, and the power dynamic between the pair becomes murkier.
Blunt and brutish with his words and fists, Ali is deceptively withholding of emotion, his initial heroics (protecting his son by any means necessary, jumping at Stephanie's call) contrasted by later scenes in which he treats people who love him thoughtlessly, or worse. He generally behaves as if he can't imagine a future beyond the moment, inducing variants of "What were you thinking?" from those he obliviously hurts. It's a tribute to Schoenaerts' beautifully restrained performance (in contrast to Cotillard's equally impressive, but utterly transparent turn) that we never know the answer to that question, his specific motivations and thought processes remaining completely opaque. At times you wonder if there's any there there at all -- here's a guy who gets pretty far in various spheres of life on the power of his body alone, but morally, emotionally and mentally, he seems to barely exist. And then, there's a final, climactic tragedy -- which, like the one that crippled Stephanie, takes place underwater -- followed by what appears to be a cloyingly sentimental, redemptive happy ending.
But given the film's repeated emphasis on the deceptive nature of perception and expectations -- made explicit at key dramatic moments through dialogue -- as the film has sat with me throughout the day I've become less sure that we're supposed to take this ending at face value. Without spoiling anything, I'll note that the film's final images include Ali posing for a photo shoot -- literally presenting an image of himself for visual consumption, which may or may not have any relationship to reality. Has he changed at all, or is he still fronting, an empty vessel posing as the epitome of masculine strength and capability? If Audiard's mastery of plastic aesthetics (including an emphasis on abstractions of light and shadow, particularly in the two water disaster sequences; and the not-quite-ironic use of a Katy Perry single -- twice) makes this all go down a little too easy, that's maybe the point: perception is deceiving.
In contrast, what you see is not exactly open for interpretation in the cheerfully vulgar Paradise (Love). It's the first in a planned trilogy from Seidl (Import/Export, Models), whose work is noted for a particular brand of "staged reality" -- documentaries styled like fiction, and ostensible fiction features in which amateur actors and professionals seamlessly interact in dramas with "real" elements, or maybe vice-versa.
Paradise (Love) follows the increasingly sordid misadventures of Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a doughy, apparently single mom who goes on vacation to Kenya, at a resort where young black men line up on the beach waiting to swarm the guests to badger them into various transactions. There, Theresa's friend, a fellow older Austrian lady, has become sugar mama to a young, black stud.
Therese is initially nervous -- "The problem is, they all look alike," she frets -- but soon takes to it like Goldilocks, trying out one local man after another in search of "love." She never finds a man who is just right -- all of them gouge her for cash, eventually -- and she's strangely shocked by this, even as her interactions with the other European ladies at the resort suggest these kinds of arrangements are not only the bedrock of the local economy, but the reason why a single older lady would come to this specific part of the world in the first place.
Set against the candy-colored backdrop of a beach resort and equally colorful surrounding slums, is the inverse of the drab, naturalistic social realism of so much current international cinema -- it's more like social surrealism. But its worldview is undeniably bleaker than anything offered up by, say, the Dardennes or the Romanian naturalists. It's one of total supply and demand, cross-cultural exploitation, with no possibility of connection outside of commodification.
Given that the white ladies are all played by actresses with substantial IMDB profiles and the black actors are all apparent first-timers, one wonders how closely the production mirrored the queasy, exploitative economics depicted in the film. It would be totally fitting with Seidl's apparent project if Paradise (Love) was, in some sense, a documentary of its own making. But that doesn't make its facile ironies about still-pervasive, post-colonial exploitation and dehumanization any more enlightening.