‘Rust and Bone’ is a risible foray into melodramatic, soap opera excess
After a strong first act with engaging moral suspense and an arresting murder sequence, Jacques Audiard’s previous film A Prophet devolved into flat, familiar territory for a prison-survival tale. Not helped by star Tahir Rahim’s blank qualities, each development in the film’s narrative suggested increasing aimlessness, shirking much of the moral compass exploration and losing an apparent sense of purpose. His latest film Rust and Bone has a similar problem, though to greater detriment; by its conclusion, it is difficult to comprehend what unifying idea actually drives its outright silly narrative.
In Antibes, France, Belgian Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has arrived to stay with his sister Louise (Céline Sallette), bringing his five year-old son whom he barely knows, having gotten the child away from his mother who used him to smuggle drugs. Louise struggles in a low wage supermarket job, while her husband is a long-distance lorry driver away from home a lot. Thanks to his build and fighting background, Ali gets a bouncer job at a local nightclub, rescuing Marion Cotillard’s Stéphanie from a violent situation one night. Driving her home, he discovers that the brash woman trains orca whales at an animal exhibition park. The next day, an accident ensues with one of the whales, causing Stéphanie to have both her legs amputated below the knees.
Months later, depressed and isolated after her partner has left her, Stéphanie forms a therapeutic bond with the brutish Ali, who does not take pity on her. The two begin a casual sexual relationship, though Stéphanie soon wishes for emotions to come into play. Meanwhile, Ali starts a career in illegal bare-knuckle fights that Stéphanie eventually becomes involved in, while further frivolous subplots include a concealed security camera scheme that threatens his sister’s job. Ali’s irresponsible parenting is also an ever present topic, culminating in particularly outlandish fashion.
Perhaps as a consequence of being based on multiple short stories by author Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone feels loosely constructed and extremely scattered, prone to dwelling in melodramatic excess over fully realised character exploration. Audiard, who co-wrote the film, seemingly aims for raw emotion, but in its place is this accumulation of ridiculously contrived scenarios combined with forced, unearned sentiment. Consistently cutting from one tragedy or hardship to another creates this cold, awkward mishmash of unsubtle notes, and there is so little payoff to most of its miseries. A few scenes have a bit of spark, thanks in part to consistently impressive special effects work regarding Cotillard’s legs, instances of striking imagery here and there, and a sometimes enjoyably eccentric soundtrack. “Love Shack” by The B-52’s scoring a wheelchair-bound dance of suggested euphoria certainly sticks in the mind, though the trick of playing jovial music over scenes of discomfort also comes across as cloyingly manipulative at times.
The human body is a major part of the film, but no sense of essence is ever conveyed about its leads as actual people, with little sense of Ali and Stéphanie’s history or interior lives ever put across. Even the surface level aspects of their lives are thinly realised: the very first time we see Stéphanie in her work environment twenty minutes in, which is essentially also her second sequence in the film, it is when her accident happens. With only sketchily-drawn characterisation, their bodies – her diminished form and his beaten shell, the latter practically fetishised by the camera at times – are the sole carriers of the weight of each excessive dabbling in suffering.
Though Schoenaerts and Cotillard in particular are far more engaging presences than A Prophet’s lead, they are just as much ciphers, here for loud, broad concepts. One wonders in a montage where Stéphanie gets “gauche” and “droite” tattooed on her thighs whether the film was actually meant to be a parody of sorts, while there’s troubling insinuation elsewhere that the character only gains humility after losing her legs. Ali, meanwhile, is defined solely by his disrespectful or violent impulses. When apparent redemption comes for him, its forced nature provokes further detachment rather than engagement. It’s also curious that Stéphanie is basically forgotten about for almost all of the film’s final twenty minutes, further enhancing the film’s rudderless feel. For all its hackneyed attempts at profundity, one would think Rust and Bone would at least have both of its vessels for miseries remain prominent until the very end.