Sunday, April 26, 2015

Can CGI trickery undermine indie storytelling?

I was meant to spend Rust and Bone contemplating the physical and emotional injuries of a pair of damaged French people, played by Matthias Schoenarts and Marion Cotillard.

Instead, I spent it trying to figure out how they managed so convincingly to make Cotillard look like an amputee.

It made me wonder if it's against the spirit of a movie like this to dabble so audaciously in digital trickery.

And what digital trickery it is. The last time I saw amputation conveyed this realistically in a movie, it was The Best Years of Our Lives -- and that guy actually had no hands.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of audacious visual technique. I'd have to be to rank Birdman as my #1 movie of 2014. But Rust and Bone made me wonder if there are certain movies where it works against the general thrust of the film.

But let's back up a minute and tell you what Jacques Audiard and company pull off in this film. No spoiler alert is needed, because what I'm about to tell you appears in every synopsis of the film.

At about the 20-minute mark of Rust and Bone, Cotillard's Stephanie, who works at a Sea World-type place called Marineland, is involved in an accident with a whale that requires the amputation of her legs at the knees. Back in the day, or even when Lieutenant Dan lost his legs in Forrest Gump, the filmmakers would have gone to great lengths not to focus on the character's legs from the knees down. There'd be a few isolated shots that would show you what had happened -- likely just from the waist down, where a real amputee could serve as a stand-in (poor choice of words) -- but then the infirmity would be deemphasized the rest of the time.

Not here. Audiard and company go out of their way to flaunt just how well modern digital technology can serve them. Not only do they show us Cotillard's stumps at one point or another during almost every scene that involves her, but they show close-ups of things like her removing prosthetic leg extensions from the bottoms of the stumps, or unrolling stockings down over the edges of the stumps. (I still don't know how they pulled those off.) And though there are definitely a couple shots that notably show the prosthetics only from the knee down, there are others when we are practically invited to pick away at any subtle differences between the real background and the parts of the background that are painted over where the fleshy parts of Cotillard's legs should be. Then there are the scenes where Cotillard is having sex, and her stumps are sometimes repositioned by her romantic partner in the hopes of achieving the ideal angle of entry. In short, the filmmakers shy away from no challenge.

I suppose one thing that strikes a viewer about this is the fact that Rust and Bone, while being a very good-looking film, nonetheless seems like a consummately small film, an independent movie made on a small budget. It's mildly problematic, then, that every instance of showing us Cotillard's amputations reminds us that an illusion is being fastidiously crafted for us. The "hey, look what I can do!" in a movie like this should be more modest, should relate to the relationship between the characters and their struggles. It should not be a constant reminder of technical derring-do.

Of course, as with many of the arguments I construct on my blog, I only half believe what I've written. I've suggested that the realism of the film is undercut by the hyperrealism of its presentation of physical disability, but that's a bit of a disingenuous statement. In a lot of ways, I'd prefer that digital trickery be used unobtrusively to add elements to an otherwise realistic story, rather than used to make a dragon fight a werewolf. One of the best unobtrusive uses of digital trickery I can think of in an otherwise realistic film is in Children of Men (SPOILER ALERT), when Kee gives birth to a digital baby girl. The scene doesn't linger on the newborn, but rather incorporates it seamlessly into a dark and disorganized moment, kind of giving it an extra sense of believability by including it more casually. It's kind of the same as how impressive digital effects are more impressive in a found footage movie, because the found footage conceit contributes an extra level of "realism" to what we're seeing.

There's probably no way for Rust and Bone to help making Stephanie's stumps more prominent than Kee's digital baby. It's a central part of the story instead of just a throwaway moment. And though he is making modest French films about scruffy people scraping by, Audiard probably does have more in common with a grand visual stylist like Alfonso Cuaron than someone who might be considered a thematic compatriot -- say, Jim Jarmusch. (Though even Jarmusch dabbled with overt visual style and effects in Only Lovers Left Alive.) And it's not like Audiard's previous film, A Prophet, steered clear of visual daring. That movie has a big wallop of magical realism and pulls off some interesting optic tricks in its own right.

But what I might conclude about Rust and Bone, which is definitely not the case in A Prophet, is that a fascination with her injury seems to be one of the only reasons for Audiard (who co-wrote the film) to have conjured this character in the first place. We aren't interested in her development as a character because he is not all that interested in it. Although she certainly has stuff going on and Cotillard gives a great performance, we are kept at arm's length from her character -- what makes her tick, what she has to work on to become a better and happier person. More bluntly, she is just a vehicle for special effects.

So while Rust and Bone is a good movie, it is not a great one because it never convinces us it has a driving need to exist as a portrait of these two characters. It only has a driving need to showcase technology, and that is not enough.

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