Saturday 3 November 2012

The spirits and the flesh: "The Master" and "Rust and Bone" (ST 04/11/12)

The Master (15) 137 mins ****
Rust and Bone (15) 120 mins ***

The protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a sailor who, even on dry land, finds himself adrift. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) emerges from navy duty at the end of WW2 with only a crippling drink problem to his name. Not for Freddie the upwardly mobile trajectory of post-War consumerism. Instead, he bobs from job to job, learning only that the photographer’s darkroom provides ideal cover (and ingredients) for cocktail-mixing, and that it’s not good form to poison your fellow cabbage-pickers with cheap grog. “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan”, from Follow the Fleet, floats on the soundtrack: whichever way Freddie tacks, he’s a man pursued by demons.

The sea, meanwhile, continues to call. One night, Freddie stumbles aboard the boat of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The founder of a crypto-scientific organisation referred to as “The Cause”, Dodd modestly bills himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher – but, above all, a man”. Upon hearing such an introduction, you or I would doubtless jump ship, but then we wouldn’t have a quart of paint stripper rolling around in our guts. Freddie is easily taken in, but not so easily quelled; where a calming, feminine influence might help, instead he’s made subject to Dodd’s provocation and power games. 

Is Lancaster Dodd modelled on L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology in 1952? Our lawyers insist you decide. The Cause solicits those with more money than sense; its followers’ belief in a cosmic conflict “a trillion years in the making” doesn’t sound so far removed from Battlefield Earth. Yet wherever they came from, Dodd and Freddie absolutely fit the framework of Anderson’s perfectly controlled films about the limits of masculine control: think of cocksure Tom Cruise, undone by emotion in Magnolia, or Daniel Day-Lewis’s oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, succumbing to capitalism’s most monstrous excesses.

Anderson allows this new film a scene-to-scene spontaneity, but a certain steeliness of vision runs through it. Freddie is a more difficult character than even Plainview: Phoenix, in a display of skilful shambling, slurs through his dialogue, flags up Freddie’s essential puerility, and rarely seeks our sympathies. The usually genial Hoffman similarly operates at arm’s length. Part figurehead, part showman, he’s Joe Stalin playing Oliver Hardy, slicking down his tie and eyebrows with an iron fist – and Anderson refuses obvious satire by making Dodd as terrifyingly credible as he is deluded. There are reasons why the Hubbards of this world exercise power.

Increasingly, Anderson’s films are leaving behind the surface falsity of the entertainment industry, so magnificently described in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, in favour of the elemental: sand, wood, waves, characters who scrabble in the dirt. He, too, has been digging – into pornography, then capitalism, now religion, each time bringing a keenly critical eye to scrutinising our needs and desires. The conclusions he uncovers in The Master aren’t always comforting, but there’s no-one currently working in the American cinema telling stories more important to where his society is at, and there’s no-one telling these stories better.

The drifters in the oddball French romance Rust and Bone are of the contemporary variety. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) arrives in the South of France, leaning heavily on the hunter-gatherer instincts he’s honed as a sometime boxer. Of nurturing qualities, however, he has none, as witnessed by a regrettable tendency to knock his young son around. Enter the mollifying Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an animal trainer at a nearby water park, whose fate is coupled to the wet stuff like hydrogen to oxygen. The couple meet after a nightclub fight, when she provides ice for his swollen fists; when a bizarre killer whale accident deprives Stephanie of her lower limbs, it’s to Ali that she turns.

Gone is the gruelling realism of director Jacques Audiard’s earlier A Prophet, replaced by Oz-like fantasy. Ali is the strongman in need of a heart; our Steph is all that, but hasn’t a leg to stand on. That Rust and Bone is both striking and strangely resistible can be attributed to the way it pushes the idea of opposites attracting to a borderline preposterous extreme. The question Audiard’s film boils down to is simple: could you love an incredibly beautiful woman with prosthetic limbs? The answer’s yes, of course, but it takes another hour for Ali’s knuckle-dragging cerebrum to formulate this response. Sentient lifeforms might spot that this is no ordinary pick-up, but Marion Cotillard; hell, even the killer whale was trying to devour her whole. 

The Master opens at the Odeon West End, London this weekend, before going nationwide on November 16; Rust and Bone is in selected cinemas.

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