Our coverage of the New York Film Festival turns to France - here's Jason line-dancing along with Thomas Bidegain's modern-ish spin on The Searchers called Les Cowboys.
Much like the killer whales that hover so symbolically over the film there are several themes swimming above and below the surface in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone. The one that landed the biggest blow was its dissection of patriarchal macho via Matthias Schoenaerts' character (Matthias has built his career on the dichotomy between his hulking frame and his tender heart). As a result Rust & Bone's final act, which felt like a detour at first, proved inevitable and invaluable to the film's ultimate achievement. Absence, it turns out, makes the heart grow colder, and only sacrifice - in this case the shattering of exceptional fists - could pound it back to life.
Les Cowboys, the first film directed by Thomas Bidegain, who wrote Rust and Bone (and other famous French films like A Prophet and Saint Laurent), similarly becomes a story of paternal symbiosis - the effects of a father's psychic touch, bruising adjoining generations. In fact the father in Les Cowboys (played by the usually comic François Damiens) and Matthias Schoenaerts' character in the earlier film share the name Alain. While they're both fixated on saving those around them, they're very different men. Cowboys' Alain, though, never finds his way to the forest from the trees. His obsession and his abandonment make eventual islands of everything he comes into contact with.
It's he first who is abandoned, when his sixteen year old daughter steals away in the night with her Muslim boyfriend, sending a letter behind saying not to follow. But follow he must, his pride as a father maligned. The daughter's action at first seems only thoughtless and cruel, an erratic whim of a love-struck teenager. With time - and there are long passages of time in Les Cowboys, trailing across similarly long and distant frontiers - as her father's eyes and words narrow and harden, we begin to understand she might've had more cause to search for breathing room.
There is also a son, a brother, barely even noticed at first. He's a footnote in his own father's eye-line, until he ages up into a capable third hand. What might become of him, dragged along in the wake of these two outwardly moving forces, both as good as ghosts to him? Les Cowboys has smart things to say about these almost ritualistic cycles of abandonment. Yes, one can be a wanderer, and yes two together (or, it turns out, two also apart) are always going some place, but three? Well, three leads to four and five and that universe, once thought ever expanding, manages its own ways to close itself back up again.
Les Cowboys screens at NYFF on Thursday, October 1 and Friday, October 2.