When we think back on our visit to a particular city, what lingers in the memory isn’t always a specific place or event. Random sounds, like the beep of a pedestrian stop light signaling it’s okay to cross, or the way a certain structure changes demeanor under the glow of the streetlamps, evoke the time we spent there better than any routine travel guide ever could.
Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, brothers and documentarians, understand this notion like few other filmmakers who strive to capture the essence of a renowned destination. Tchoupitoulas, their compact second feature, tells a deceptively simple story. On the surface, it chronicles one night in the lives of the Zanders brothers, how they come to become acquainted with New Orleans’ nightlife after they miss the midnight ferry that would have taken them home.
Ross frères keep a watchful eye on the Zanders, particularly on William, their youngest and most engaging subject. His older siblings, Bryan and Kentrell, are already in their teens and already full of that inevitable swagger that comes during these transitional years. William, right on the cusp of adolescence, holds on to a charming naïvété, and it’s the way his untrained eye perceives his surroundings that fascinates the filmmakers. What better way to dive headfirst into The Big Easy than through the eyes of somebody for whom just about everything is new and exciting?
The Zanders and their dog Buttercup cross the Mississippi, but for William it’s as if he were going to Oz. Once the trio and their canine companion set foot on the French Quarter, Tchoupitoulas, which is named after the street on which the brothers (mostly) stick to, doesn’t just ask us to take in the sights. The film also invites viewers to listen. The real star here is the directors’ wandering ear. Their intricate soundtrack incorporates snippets of street chatter and urban sounds to create an aural collage that captures the city’s chaotic cacophony. A fiddler’s rendition of the theme from The Godfather segues into a group of showgirls singing – and subsequently deconstructing – “Iko Iko” in their dressing room as they prepare to go onstage. A compassionate fundamentalist’s attempts to get the Zanders to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior gives way to a peek at an oyster bar and the chatty cook who flirts with a female customer of a certain age. And a tour guide atop a horse drawn carriage intersperses New Orleans history trivia and serves as the movie’s recurring Greek chorus.
If it seems unlikely that the Rosses were able to capture all this footage on one night, you would be right. The nonfiction storytellers spent nine months gleaning all the footage they needed. Vérité purists might cry fowl, but the film’s this-all-happened-during-one-eventful-night conceit lends the directors’ stream-of-consciousness approach a narrative structure. Just go with the flow, and let the good times roll.
“This is everything I hoped for,” exclaims Williams halfway into his odyssey. Tchoupitoulas saves the best vignettes for its latter half, after the Zanders miss their midnight ferry. Two spirited drag queens launch into “Proud Mary” as William peers from outside the bar, perplexed and transfixed in equal measures. At certain intervals, the Rosses’ out-of-focus compositions yields abstract images that lend the film a dreamlike. Streetlamps and car headlights become dots of light, and a golden orb snaps back into focus to reveal a streetcar snaking out of view.
The filmmakers never allow the surreal flourishes to overtake Tchoupitoulas, which arrives at a climax of sorts during an extended sequence in which the Zanders sneak into an old showboat. To their credit, the filmmakers resist making a statement about class or racial inequality, but there’s something undeniably powerful about seeing these working-class African American kids staring in awe at the dilapidated interiors of what used to be a microcosm of Southern society. There’s the allure of Tchoupitoulas in a nutshell, a joyous, kaleidoscopic ode to a city’s thriving nightlife that’s a whole deal more than the sum of its parts.
William Zanders is not the only school-age screen subject coming of age against an unusual backdrop. This week also brings us Sam van Versch, an adorable moppet played by newcomer Armand Verdure. Pretty early on in the affecting character study Rust and Bone, I started wishing the movie started paying more attention to him. Admittedly, he’s not the main focus of the new film from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet). That would be his dad Alain, played with feral aplomb by Belgian rising star Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead). The man’s not a model father. There he is, foraging for food amidst bus passengers’ leftovers. Alain, you see, is traveling to Antibes to stay with his older sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Seems like he got stuck with custody of the snot-nosed brat after social services deemed his mom’s parental practices less than adequate.
Working as a bouncer at a local nightclub, Alain stands up for Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) after she tries to ward off a man’s unwanted advances. But Stéphanie’s already used to dealing with wild animals. She does, after all, train killer whales at a Sea World-ish theme park for a living. Alain keeps hopping from job to job. Somewhere along the way, he hears the cute damsel in distress lost her legs as a result of freak accident during one of her shows. Audiard films the disquieting sequence from underwater (Shamu’s POV?), thankfully keeping the most grotesque moments offscreen.
What gives Rust and Bone most of its potency is Schoenaerts’ sexual energy once Alain and Stéphanie become casual lovers. The story takes an interesting turn when a surveillance camera repairman who comes to Alain’s job as a night guard signs him up for fights at an underground ultimate fighting circuit, and during these scenes, Audiard’s film is never less than engrossing. Unfortunately, Audiard has convinced himself he’s making a kitchen sink drama in the vein of the naturalistic working-class fables from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, last year’s The Kid with a Bike). Here’s the crucial difference: In the Dardennes’ world, the plot plays out as if real life were unfolding before your eyes. The hard-hitting twists of fate in Rust and Bone, on the other hand, come across as the storytelling whims of a filmmaker who desperately wants his movie to be “realistic.”
The biggest casualties of Audiard’s faux naturalism are the supporting characters. Anna is discarded, then brought back to serve as a pivotal plot device. I felt most sorry for poor, innocent Sam, who’s tossed around like a rag doll to prove Alain’s parental ineptitude, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse for the unfortunate tyke, Audiard serves up a contrived mishap that you see coming a mile away. It doesn’t exactly take away from the film’s many virtues – Cotillard and Schoenearts justly lauded performances live up to the awards hype – but it made me long for the days when Audiard was content with being an effective classical filmmaker (Read My Lips, The Beat that My Heart Skipped). Leave the gritty social realism to the experts, monsieur.
Rust and Bone begins its exclusive Miami engagement this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com). Tchoupitoulas takes you to the Crescent City starting Thursday at O Cinema (o-cinema.org).