An intense, testosterone-charged love story from Audiard
“Rust and Bone is an impressive film,” Serge Kaganski, critic of the French weekly Les Inrockuptibles wrote in praise of Jacques Audiard’s new title in Cannes competition and simultaneously opening in Paris, “a film of mastery, intensity and, finally, simplicity. . . Each shot is impeccably composed, lit, and cut,” he went on, “while still serving the story and characters.” This is an important point to make because there is no prettiness about most of the images: they rarely call attention to themselves. And Kaganski adds, “Because the largest share of success of the film lies in the characters, so all attention is on the actors: their bodies, their phrasing, their interactions, their looks, their range of feelings.”
These are the key points: this is an actor’s film, harsh, brilliant, hard to take. Rust and Bone is, as one would expect from Audiard, a remarkable, challenging movie. But it’s different from the noirish stories he has done before, It’s a love story, but it’s also a kind of action movie, bursting with energy and hitting the viewer with a succession of physical and emotional shocks. Its hero is a brute of great physical intensity but terribly out of touch with his emotions. The arc leads him finally to acknowledge them. And so this is an action movie that is simultaneously (and less visibly much of the time) a slow-developing romance. It’s loosely adapted from a similarly-titled short story collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, and we feel the expansion, pushing the limits of some story elements, so a few details seem fudged, the movie’s most evident flaw. While packing a wallop and likely to please audiences looking for rough naturalistic elements combined with romance, this film isn’t quite the wholehearted success Audiard achieved in his previous two films, the great frustrated-artist noir The Beat My Heart Skipped and the breathlessly absorbing prison making-of-a-crime-boss epic A Prophet.
Simply put, this is the relationship of a beautiful handicapped woman and a brutish fighter. Marineland orca-trainer Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is rendered legless by a terrible accident during a performance. While still whole, she is rescued from a fight in a bar by Ali (the up-and-coming Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, whose breakthrough was the intense Flemish picture Bullhead . After her accident, before rehab and prosthetics, she calls up Ali and a relationship begins. Ali has come from the north to the south coast to Antibes with his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) after his mother has involved the boy in drug smuggling. He is so brutish (and out of touch with emotion) that he seems either super-human or subhuman, and it’s only Stéphanie’s handicap that makes their union believable.
The relationship is just friendly at first, pals, then later fuck-buddies. Ali takes Stéphanie swimming, carrying her into the water. This experience gives her a kind of physical release and revival from the depression of losing her legs. Later he suggests sex. That doesn’t keep this testosterone brute from having sex with other women. Meanwhile he engages in the brutal illegal fights staged by his shady employer Martial (ace Belgian actor and filmmaker Bouli Lanners), also working for him in security at a business where Martial has installed illegal devices to spy on employees. This leads to the firing of Ali’s hard-faced sister Louise (Céline Sallette), with whom he has been living since he came south. She has him thrown out of her house at gunpoint, with Sam.
There is another terrible accident, pointing to Ali’s carelessness and violence, even to himself, but this ordeal finally leads him to acknowledge his feelings for those close to him, and a surprisingly soft ending, considering the extreme harshness of most of what has come before. The Variety reviewer at Cannes, Peter Debruge, links this film both with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and the tradition of French movies following the American genre of down-and-out lowlife fighters struggling vainly to get back up. He also suggests Audiard’s blend of romance (and controlled script) and gritty almost Dardennes-style realism (and the Dardennes lend their imprimatur as producers here) is a canny choice because it satisfies audiences’ lust for something new and fatigue with the flabby Nicholas Sparks kind of love story. However he points out this is a “massive undertaking” by French standards with its complex roles, allowing big star Cotillard dignity in a harsh role, introducing the remarkable Schoenaerts in a French-speaking part, not to mention the mixture of soothing music by Alexandre Desplat and American pop songs, gritty hand-held scenes and grand spectacles at Marineland (and underwater photography). All this is in addition to skillful F/X alteration of images to show Stéphanie’s amputated limbs repeatedly in multiple situations to the point where we come to accept them.
Audiard chose something smaller after the huge challenge of his big prison epic, yet it turns out not to be so small after all. Maybe he should have down-pedaled some of the plot elements. Though he based this on a whole story collection, the parts still seem fragmentary — though the impact of every scene is so great, audiences won’t notice. Mike d’Angelo, whose Cannes Tweets I followed, rated it in his top eight films there and tweeted, “The story of a horribly disabled person, and also of a woman with no legs. Stealthy reverse schematism! I like.” Me too. Surely one of my top ten foreign language films of 2012.
Rust and Bone (the original story title), French title De rouille et d’os, with a screenplay by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, debuted at Cannes in competition and was simultaneously released in Paris cinemas May 17, 2012. Screened for this review at Gaumont Opéra Paris May 17. Allociné press rating: 4.3 based on 23 reviews. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the US Nov. 23. The UK release date is Nov. 2.
DIRECTOR: JACQUES AUDIARD
STARS: MARION COTILLARD, MATTHIAS SHOENAERTS, ARMAND VERDURE
RUNNING TIME: 120MIN