Cannes 2012: ‘Rust and Bone’ + ‘After the Battle’

Jaques Audiard’s De Rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone) and Yousry Nasrallah’s Baad el Mawkeaa (After the Battle) enthrall at Cannes 2012.

In one of the most beautiful shots in Jacques Audiard’s De Rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone), Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) gestures with her hands in order to direct an orca’s movements. Her entire body leans against the glass of the whale’s tank. The shot is wide, revealing the blue water and also her body, underlining that she is in fact missing her legs: the metal of her prostheses gleams just below her trousers’ hem.

Stéphanie’s legs serve as a measure of her state of mind, before and after a killer whale bites off her own. They denote her weakness when she taunts men in a skimpy dress in a nightclub before the attack by one of the whales she trains, or when she hides her prostheses under her clothes, but also mark her toughness, as when she tattoos her thighs as “Left” and “Right” or wears a skirt that reveals her artificial legs.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) first meets Stéphanie before the attack. He’s a former small-time boxing champion, now homeless and out of work, looking after his five-year-old son and just moved to Antibes to live with his sister Anne (Céline Sallette), a supermarket cashier. Ali is incapable of embarrassment, which helps in his relationship with Stéphanie. As they negotiate any number of obstacles, the lovers test one another repeatedly: Cotillard’s face, drawn and free of makeup, matches Schoenaerts’ dispassionate, determined demeanor. Their mutual will to survive makes this movie romance remarkable.

At the start of their relationship, Stéphanie follows Ali to underground fights, arranged by his boss Martial (Bouli Lanners). She initially stays in the car, not allowed to mix with fighters and gamblers, but then steps out at a crucial moment to inspire Ali to win, and finally, when Martial has to flee from the law, becomes his manager, setting up fights and collecting bets. “Do you think I can do it?” she asks Martial. He says yes, without hesitation, a moment underlining her acceptance by the guys.

Cannes Competition is, rather notoriously, also a man’s world. Women filmmakers — as individuals and groups — are protesting the absence of women filmmakers among Palme d’Or contestants this year, in part by an online petition. Such absence is hardly ameliorated by the fact, the petition points out, that Jane Campion is the only woman in 64 years to win Palme d’Or at Cannes, for The Piano in 1993.

At the same time, according to the Guardian, Andrea Arnold, a member of this year’s Palme d’Or jury, dismisses complaints that “unworthy films made by directors from the developing world, or from conflict zones, are included in the Cannes jury’s selection in spite of their low quality.” The tension here is at once familiar and insidious: first, the jury insists that films are selected based on quality — or, as Arnold submits, the jury looks for “films that are political and have something to say” — and second, that the slots afforded to women or by filmmakers from “conflict zones” are a zero sum trade-off, and white male regulars will always have slots. Another, less visible assumption evoked by the complaint, is that these activist nonwhite filmmakers “from conflict zones” may be more likely to have “something to say about so-called “women’s issues.”

A case in point is this year’s Egyptian entry, Baad el Mawkeaa (After the Battle). The veteran filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah is known for his overtly political work, touching on themes such as the Palestinian question (2004’s Gate of the Sun) and the Arab Spring (18 Days, screened at Cannes last year). The new movie opens with discussion of the 8 March 2011 (International Women’s Day) attack on women in Tahrir Square and ends on 9 October (dubbed “Black Sunday”), when Christian and Muslim protesters were attacked near Egypt’s state TV building in Maspero.

In between these crises, the film repeatedly shows the notorious YouTube footage of “the Battle of the Camels” on 2 February 2011, a week and a half before Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. (The images feature camel riders and horsemen from the poor Bedouin community of Nazlet El-Samman, situated at the bottom of the Pyramids, attacked protesters.) YouTube becomes the source of all troubles for Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), who is mocked and shunned because, unlike his fellow riders, he appears in the videos being beaten by the protesters.

Though it was shot largely during the protests against the Egyptian military government, the film lacks the immediate, rough seeming authenticity of the familiar smartphone and TV footage. At times, close-ups of faces contorted with suffering and shots of choreographed physical violence recall Egyptian melodramatic tradition, as well as Samra’s own celebrity. He became a national star after appearing as a soldier family man seduced by a gay journalist in the melodrama, Yacoubian Building (2006).

In After the Battle, such conventions compete with elements of another tradition, socialist realism. Following a chance encounter with Mahmoud, the affluent, forward-thinking Reem (Menna Shalaby) is inspired to go into an impoverished Bedouin community to help feed starving horses and raise women’s consciousness.

As the film develops, Mahmoud appears less a collaborator and more of a victim of Mubarak’s regime, while Reem’s simplistic vision of revolution and women’s rights changes as she recognizes the needs of Bedouins cut off by a government-built wall from the Pyramids and tourists, their main source of income. After the Battle resists the usual aesthetic of contemporary art-house cinema (and received a mixed critical reception at Cannes), but also presents a useful narrative and visual corrective to Western depictions of the Arab Spring as the product of social media.

RATING 7 / 10
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