Marion Cotillard is rapidly becoming notorius for her drastic transformations of body and presence on film. She excels playing strong women worn down or broken by trauma, from the increasingly frail Edith Piaf in LA VIE EN ROSE to Mal’s steady slide into mania in INCEPTION. I’ve watched two stunning films starring Cotillard recently, one French and one Belgian, but both dealing with lives reeling in turmoil from circumstances beyond their control.
RUST AND BONE (2012)
RUST AND BONE follows Stéphanie (Cotillard), a whale trainer whose career is ended and life change irrevocably by a sudden and terrible accident. Her slow recovery is given a boost by single father and bare-knuckle fighter Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) with whom she forms a strong friendship and whirlwind romance. Alain has his own problems with raising a young son and making enough money to make ends meet, and both lost souls end up helping each other to live life to the full again.
Stéphanie’s accident that ends both her career and enjoyment of life in Rust and Bone is harrowing, but never gratuitous or exploitative, Cotillard’s character arc is convincing and the difficult issues are handled sensitively by writer-director Jacques Audiard. I’ve yet to see Audiard’s much-acclaimed A PROPHET, but after seeing the vitality and humanity he brings to play in this film, I’ll make sure to seek it out.
The story centres on Stéphanie’s woes to begin with, then shifts focus to the issues that are ruining Alain’s life at about the film’s halfway mark. Both lead characters’ journeys are compelling in their own right, and could have sustained a film by themselves, but they provide interesting contrasts and change in pace, energy and emotional/thematic focus. No sooner are we celebrating Stéphanie regaining purpose in her day-to-day then we crash back to Earth as Alain hits absolute rock-bottom. The story is punctuated and enlivened by short, sharp shocks, and then we are allowed to explore the consequences of these events for everyone involved in meticulous, uncomfortable detail. Both leads are phenomenal, changing not only their appearance and behaviour, but as their characters go through hard times, they seem to change their very essence as well.
It would be very easy to turn the film into a pity story for either character, but the filmmakers and performers are far too clever for that. This isn’t an awards-bait feature about “issues” for the sake of having something to talk about. Stephanie and Alain both lead difficult lives, they both have some serious issues to confront, but they both demonstrate the considerable inner strength and resolve to get over these issues and eventually to move on. They help each other in their own way, but they aren’t the reason that the other character manages to make it out of their pit of despair, that’s down to them alone. It’s often not an easy watch, but in the end it’s inspiring, beautiful stuff.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014)
Sandra (Cotillard) can’t bare to just “start again”, a feeling far too many will have experienced in recent years of worldwide economic and employment crisis. There are few things more stressful and frightening than having to start from scratch in a new and unfamiliar place of work, especially if you’ve been doing the same job for a long time, or like Sandra you have a young family to support and long-standing health problems.
The plot plays on the unpleasant reality that it’s easy to ask someone to give up their job on paper, but it’s far tougher to do it to their face. When Sandra is asked to give up her career in order to allow her co-workers to receive a bonus following her long-term sick leave, she resolved to go out and meet them one by one to change their mind, hoping that they won’t be so callous in their decision if she’s looking them in the eye.
Very bravely, the Dardenne Brothers’ camera tends to hang back in medium-shot and all we are given to focus on is Cotillard’s performance, her reactions to her colleagues’ response to her request. The same goes for phone calls, where we only ever hear Sandra’s side of the conversation. It’s raw, it’s honest and it’s pure, and it more-or-less entirely hinges on Cotillard conveying the tangle of emotions Sandra is experiencing at any given moment. Cotillard’s entire physicality is different to her default of effortless European elegance – she’s gaunt, slouched and disheveled, her eyes overflowing with pain.
Occasionally, the film’s static, passive camera heightens the emotion of a scene with the addition of a simple but effective movement. When Sandra is trying to convince guilt-ridden colleague Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) to vote in her favour, rather than framing both characters in a two-shot, the camera fluidly pans between the two to take in their responses to the other’s words in isolation.
Everyone in the film has problems, and none of Sandra’s colleagues are demonised as such for their refusal to support her keeping her job. As one puts it, “I didn’t vote against you, I voted for my bonus”. We empathise with Sandra, but not at the expense of her co-workers, and this is a delicate balancing act to pull off.
Of course, getting her colleague’s vote is only half the battle for Sandra, as she angrily puts it to her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she forced those who have agreed to help pity her, and even if she does end up keeping her job she’ll always have the torment of the way they look at her to live with every day.
It’s such a relief when Sandra finally smiles, smiles at the ridiculousness of Manu “protecting her” from, of all things, depressing songs on the radio. There’s no getting around the fact that overall TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a heavy, miserable viewing experience, but when these small rays of hope occasionally shine through, you realise things, both in the film and in life itself can only get better. SSP