Directed by Jacques Audiard
Screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) poignantly contrasts delicate notes of loss and sensuality with brute selfishness in his prickly Rust and Bone. Debuting at Cannes, it’s a film that almost fights against audience affection. Although there are moments of breakaway freedom to cheer for, characters do not bend to each other’s feelings as is so expected from a love story albeit an off the beaten path one. While there is a tender spot for random events that rob people of their livelihood, it is above all concerned about the rough road to reciprocity many encounter in which the largest obstacle to happiness is not physical but a partner’s capacity to acknowledge the needs of others.
Matthias Schoenaerts’ (Bullhead, Black Book) Alain operates on basic survival mechanisms to push him through the hardships of life. He has been unemployed, hungry and gone to the lengths of petty theft to get by. It is sweet that he has taken on the care of his young and impressionable son but it’s clear that his son’s emotional well being gets shoved to the side by the basest of priorities. Alain does not know how to fully relate to anyone even as he dutifully cares for them. There is already little room in Alain’s life for anyone but himself when he rescues Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) from a fight at a club he’s been hired on to bounce. His first interaction with her is chivalrous but charged with an ignorant sexism that blames her for her victimization. Clearly there is an immediate attraction, closeness and sense of protectiveness between them that the entirety of the film frustratingly plays at accomplishing at wildly varying levels of depth. Driving the rest of the story is the bleak amputation of Stephanie’s legs from a freak accident while at work at a SeaWorld like establishment. Removed entirely from society, she copes with the complete alteration of her existence. At first an obstacle to viewing, the strangeness of the digital deletion of Cotillard’s legs soon falls to the wayside as her powerful conveyance of suffering commandeers the screen.
The loss of physical ability and normal contact with the world brings our heroine into a state of total deprivation. Marion Cotillard is achingly sincere as she goes through grieving for her legs and past life. Post accident she is confined to a small apartment and left alone with her memories. Months later she initiates visits with Alain, remembering their intimate yet immature interaction. His presence allows her to break out of her stasis. Nakedly swimming and sunbathing with him she is able to slowly rebuild her disseminated sense of sexuality and self. Alain takes notice of her but it’s unclear what he feels beyond an interest in her body. The crush of her truncated, naked body against his back is a devastatingly breathtaking series of scenes that could have been moving if Alain’s character were someone to get behind. Schoenaert’s placid face is a hard read. We are left to wonder whether he truly cares, is only good for reliable transportation or just present to ogle her form. When they fall quite easily into a sexual relationship it only visibly complicates feelings for Stephanie. Alain carries on as if nothing has changed. It is easy for him to slip in and out of the bedroom when a lover can’t follow. Cotillard stripped of glamour, with just her talent to show is phenomenal at translating her desire to live again onto someone as blank and aloof of other people’s pain as Alain.
It is extremely difficult to sympathize with Alain with the flippant way he ignores his son and doesn’t give a second thought to how promiscuity might hurt Stephanie. If he truly cared for her, wouldn’t he be interested in taking care of more than just her physical needs? The sex that Alain has with women is gruff, mechanical, unfeeling- a primal satisfaction that goes no farther than the act. In undermining his connection to Stephanie he creates a deep divide between himself and audience’s sympathies. He is able to successfully channel his frustrations into an underground fighting career but his triumphs aren’t evidence enough for one to root for him to finally come around to Stephanie’s obvious love. Despite his emotional neglect, Stephanie has benefitted enough from interactions with Alain to cheer him on and think that there is more to him than he has ever let on. The film’s weakest point is that it’s incredibly problematic that her helplessness is only rectified by a minimal effort from him. There are no caresses to solidify something mutual. Both characters are damaged, but only Cotillard appears as if she has overcome her vanities enough to love others.
Alain is aggravatingly selfish, a big galoot who only gives in order to receive. That more is required from him besides his bodily presence in people’s lives doesn’t seem to dawn on him. Stephanie’s freedom of spirit is of chief concern and the scenes in which Cotillard is able to boldly present herself as not being beaten down by life are the most resonant. She orchestrates her independence with open arms, tearing down walls of agony reenacting hand movements from of her days as an Orca trainer. Improbable people do fit together and make each other realize what the other is capable of but Rust and Bone presents us with very little to go on between Stephanie and Alain. Alternating between crude and kind, Audiard’s effort is an exhausting ride open to individual interpretation as to how far love can go when one person is more deserving and open than the other.
– Lane Scarberry