After A Prophet won the Grand Prix (second place) award at Cannes in 2009, Jacques Audiard became a bit of a household name. Rust & Bone (De rouille et d’os) couldn’t be any further removed from the Cannes winner (Rust & Bone would debut at Cannes this year), primarily operating as a flawed, no-holds barred emotional tale of wounded souls who are barely hanging on. While Audiard’s latest doesn’t necessarily contain the meaty in-depth thrills that made A Prophet the engrossing beast that it was, it oddly defies convention and hits deep despite its cookie-cutter makeup.
Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, a jobless and struggling father who has just left Belgium as the film opens, looking for a fresh start in Antibes with his sister and her husband. Marion Cotilliard’s Stephanie works at a Sea World-esque amusement park as an Orca trainer. After Stephanie loses her legs in a horrible accident at the park, the two form a unique relationship that undercuts most modern romances (if you can call it that) and becomes a genuinely moving portrait of overcoming tragedy. Their relationship proves to be a complicated one as Ali seeks to be just a friend and casual lover. Stephanie’s hunger for more than what Ali is willing to offer is what drives the film as they continue to find each other on their road to redemption.
Marred by increasingly defective tonal shifts, the central relationship between Stephanie and Ali is the glue that holds the film together. In another film, Schoenaerts’s role would most likely be reduced to a supporting turn, offering aid and solace to the broken Stephanie amidst her own personal crisis. At first there’s an attraction, but something deeper starts to work itself in; Stephanie is viewed as a charity case – a broken woman with nothing left to offer; she becomes his girlfriend and manager in an eye-rolling Rocky-esque manner that feels both contrived and fresh. Rust & Bone works best when it’s upending expectations, as its use of pop music and glimpses of tenderness offset most of the film’s plunges into melodrama.
Casually dipping its toe into extraneous subplots, the narrative unfolds as a series of small triumphs often upended by Ali’s primal incompetence. Schoenaerts fits the bill as one of the most talented actors working today – Cotilliard is good, but he’s the film’s real revelation. He dominated each frame of last year’s Bullhead, a film that has problems of its own but remained watchable due to its fascinating lead. But, there’s no denying what the actor brings to the table: Brute force in a strictly physical sense and a charm that sticks despite Ali’s own haphazard manner (especially pertaining to the neglecting of his son).
By the end, the film’s central thesis is hammered home in an overtly foreseeable manner: We’re all animals under the surface, but we’re capable of grasping onto hope when all seems lost. Audiard’s pungently soulful film has its merits, but feels more like a regression for the French director. Strong performances aside, Rust & Bone’s take on the fragility of our lives is nothing new, as its overreaching hands can’t quite grasp its intended depiction of reconciliation.
– Ty Landis