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The cracks under the surface
on 21 March 2013
This peculiar film centres on two characters who are damaged, both mentally and physically - Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer who has lost her lower legs after a horrific accident where an orca misread her signals and attacked her, and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an aspiring boxer who has taken on the care of his young son, Sam, after the end of his relationship with Sam's mother. After watching this film, I found out that it was based on two short stories from the Canadian writer Craig Davidson, and that the sex of one of the protagonists had been reversed by director Jacques Audiard, as he felt his previous films had been too male-dominated; this was somewhat of a lightbulb moment for me, as it seemed to explain much about both the strengths and weaknesses of this puzzling narrative. The opening scenes are strong, introducing the unsympathetic Ali, whom, it is swiftly established, seems to have a penchant for shirking his responsibilities, and setting Stephanie up as an engaging but flawed character, who also behaves irresponsibly when out drinking but is clearly in full command of herself as she directs orcas before the catastrophe. Inevitably, Stephanie and Ali become more closely involved after her accident, and observe each other - support may be too strong a word - as she struggles to adjust to her new life and her new legs, and he engages in illegal fights to make money and keep his hand in as a boxer.
The major problems with this film for me were structural, as there are some incredible set-pieces - two symbolically similar scenes, where Stephanie communes with the orca through glass and Ali undergoes a similar epiphany (avoiding spoilers) involving a frozen lake near the end of the film, are memorable and beautiful. Both Cotillard and Schoenaerts also give remarkable performances, with Cotillard as the stand-out for me; I remembered seeing her in 'Little White Lies', and although that film was mediocre at best, she still inhabited her role mesmerisingly. However, the final third of the film was surprisingly weak, as Ali's and Stephanie's stories seemed to digress away from each other, with frustratingly little focus on Stephanie, who was by far the most likeable of the pair. The film's opening seemed to set Stephanie up as a interesting female protagonist, but I felt that as the plot progressed, she became more of a foil for Ali, making their relationship a much more hackneyed and familiar trope than it initially promised. This also had unfortunate structural consequences for the film, I felt, making me wonder why she had lost her legs at all, and what the symbolism of the orca accident was meant to be, other than her attempts to train two beasts (Ali and the orca), which didn't seem particularly satisfying. This is where I felt the joins between the two separate stories that Audiard has taken as source material really showed, and I found myself thinking that the narratives might have worked better as two separate films. The final scene of the film, while powerful, felt ultimately meaningless, and I wasn't sure what Ali had learned from his journey and why Stephanie seemed to have solved her problems so easily.
I enjoyed watching this film, but in the end, I felt frustrated by its confusions and digressions, and its occasional glorification of hyper-masculinity, even as it criticised it. I would be interested to watch more by Audiard to see how far these criticisms are confined to this piece and its multiplicity of source material, or if these are more obvious trends throughout his work.