Wounded souls navigate life, each other, in dynamic ‘Rust and Bone’
French-born filmmaker Jacques Audiard is best known for his stylish thrillers. His last film was the Oscar nominee A Prophet, a jazzy, yet often brutal crime melodrama about a young Muslim man coming of age inside a French prison. But Audiard’s engrossing new film, Rust and Bone, is a departure. While it percolates with suspense, even dread, it’s not exactly a thriller, and the love story that slowly wends its way to the surface avoids the trappings of conventional romance for something darker, deeper, and ultimately more satisfying.
Its protagonist, Ali (the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts), is a man on the run from his home in Belgium with his five-year-old son, Sam. Hitchhiking, then taking a train, scavenging food that other passengers have left behind, or stealing from a busy McDonald’s, they are on their way to Ali’s sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), and her truck-driver husband in the French beachfront resort town of Cap d’Antibes. Some mention is made in passing that Ali’s wife was using their little boy in a drug-smuggling enterprise, so he’s come to France to get a new start.
We get the feeling that, like most of his impulses, Ali’s move to France has not been well thought-out. It falls to Anna to arrange for Sam to go to school, and find a baby-sitter for him when the adults are all off at work. Still, Ali quickly finds work, first as a nightclub bouncer, then a security guard—where he falls in with a shady character called Martial (Bouli Lanners), who organizes illegal street-fighting matches and sees promise in amateur kickboxer Ali.
While working as a bouncer, Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard); he intervenes when a guy she meets at the bar picks a fight with her. Driving her home in her own car, Ali impresses Stephanie with his aplomb, especially the way he shrugs off the insinuations of her boyfriend at home.
Stephanie trains killer whales at the local Marineland park; she and her crew use elaborate hand gestures to train the orcas to leap out of the water and spin around for the tourists. But something goes horribly wrong one day at a performance (a harrowing sequence shot mostly from an underwater viewpoint), and Stephanie wakes up the hospital to find both her legs severed below the knees. After weeks mired in self-pity, unresponsive to the pleas of her friends and doctors, out of the blue, one day, Stephanie calls Ali.
Stephanie realizes she needs an infusion of backbone, and Ali’s matter-of-fact reaction to her mutilated limbs helps pull her out of her funk. In no time, he has her out of her wheelchair, carrying her piggyback in and out of the ocean so she can swim, restoring some of her confidence. Meanwhile, she starts accompanying Ali to his fights, turned on by his rage and power. Yet nothing in their evolving relationship follows the rules of romantic clichés. Early on, he offers to have sex with her, to “see if it still works,” and she agrees, but sex with random women is as natural as fighting to Ali, and gives Stephanie no special claim over him. More important is the way they negotiate an alliance based on mutual need and respect as shifting circumstances show them how much they mean to each other.
Very loosely based on characters in Craig Davidson’s short story collection of the same name, Rust and Bone is at its best delving into the relationship between these wounded individuals: Ali needs to find an outlet for the inner rage born of a disappointing life, while Stephanie’s wounds are more visible, yet easier to cope with in the long run. Audiard plays against the backdrop of sun-kissed Antibes, creating a milieu of potential violence and anxiety (especially whenever the often overlooked little Sam wanders into the scene), and the CGI effects by which Cotillard is made to look limbless—from every possible angle—are amazing.
Like her character, we are forced to confront her disability and make peace with it. Cotillard’s wonderful portrait of a woman who decides to be fearless is well partnered by Schoenaerts’ tough-tender Ali; theirs is an intricate, delicate mating dance that fuels this dynamic film.
RUST AND BONE
★★★ (out of four)
With Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard. Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. Directed by Jacques Audiard. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 120 minutes. In French with English subtitles.