"Amour" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, and having seen it this week, I can now testify as to why. But following it up back-to-back with fellow Cannes competitor "Rust and Bone" during a screening doubleheader Wednesday at Sony, I'll confess I found the latter in some ways surpassed it.
A small degree of conceptual spoilers follow ...
The Michael Haneke-directed "Amour" would seem to be more of what you'd expect a film academy to respond to, should the pic officially enter the foreign language competition at the Oscars. Genuinely affecting, it never hits a false moment in telling its story of an eightysomething couple dealing with the wife's stroke-induced decline. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant portray a marriage built on chemistry and mutual respect but one that is also battle-tested, to the point that no matter the crisis, the communication stays open until one of them literally can't speak.
However, "Amour" exists in a largely insular world, and never takes you anywhere you wouldn't expect it to go. Every chapter follows in systematic fashion. The sincerity of the film – and the pain of its characters in their final journey – is unmistakable, but I don't think the film offers enough new insight to make it a transcendent experience. The way you'd imagine a film about two lifelong partners facing the end is very much the way the film is.
"Rust and Bone," on the other hand, has rougher edges but a broader, almost pointillistic canvas and at the same time, a cool kind of firepower. It takes the risk of a male lead character, Ali (Matthias Schoenearts) that is anything but reliable – to the point that I spent some moments in the movie how he would be polished had "Rust" been written directly for Stateside audiences. Ali is alternately despicable and heroic and everything in between. And through him, "Rust" pushes at what it means to love and be loved by breaking the rules.
The way Stephanie (the radiant Marion Cotillard), who has her own personal struggle to say the least, wrestles with her feelings toward Ali as he bounces between savior and villain is something I haven't really seen before at the movies. And so even when his behavior could be exasperating, his skull as thick figuratively as it was literally in his fight scenes, you understood the purpose – to show the precarious balance in a relationship of when you need to be understanding and when you need to stand up for yourself.
Directed by Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain, "Rust and Bone" jams through a couple of plot points in its final act to get itself where it wants to go. A disappearance introduced as mysterious becomes unmysterious almost in the next moment, and a film filled with crisis pours on one final blow that had me throwing up my hands. The plotting of "Rust" isn't as seamless as it is in "Amour," and for that matter, "Amour" might linger with me over the longer haul as a touchstone, should my own marriage be so fortunate to go so long before reaching such a sad place. But in the here and now, "Rust and Bone" is more of a delight.
But awards possibilities aside, this doesn't have to be a competition. "Rust and Bone" and "Amour" can be considered companions, and worthwhile ones at that – one examining a relationship at its rocky beginnings, the other at its rocky end.