Rust and Bone is the new film from French director, Jacques Audiard, and competed for the Palm d’Or at this years Cannes Festival. After his breakthrough film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and his follow up A Prophet (2009), both multiple award winners, it is understandable that Rust and Bone would be burdened with high expectations. Does it live up to them? Well, yes and no. Whilst on the surface, and on the strength of the somewhat bizarre trailer, this film seems to be completely different to his last two, it’s soon apparent, however, that Rust and Bone takes elements from both of these films, and many others besides. It is a love story, a low-level crime story, a family drama; it has elements of a thriller, it is erotic. There are moments of pathos and humour, moments of shock and surprise, all wrapped up in a beautifully shot film of emotional punch. And it has killer whales in it. That it doesn’t quite work is certainly no fault of anybody involved in its production.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor of remarkable masculinity, as seen in 2011’s Bullhead) is a bit of a mystery. We first meet him when he arrives in Antibes, with his 5-year old son, Sam, in tow. We don’t know where he is from, what he has done or even what his plans are. What we do know is that he is an uncompromising man; in his work, his sex, his fighting. In fact, the only thing he doesn’t seem overly concerned about is his son. He moves in with his sister(Corinne Masiero), he leaves his son to her to care for while he goes out and tries to earn a living. Whilst working at a nightclub as a bouncer (Schoenaerts seems designed for this kind of quietly intense work) he rescues a woman, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) from a fight. She is beautiful and outgoing, working as a trainer at a large marine park. We don’t get to see too much of her before her world crashes down around her in an horrific accident at the park, one that is handled with subtle understatement by Audiard, when it could so easily have fallen into exaggeration contrivance.
At this point already we begin to see some of the director’s bold stylistic choices, the underwater scenes, brief though they are, are filmed in a wonderfully impressionistic, almost psychedelic, layered style. Everything above water is either sun-kissed, touched by lens-flares or suitably gritty. The visual style of the scenes seems to correspond to their emotional demands, particularly the snow and ice of the later moments. The score, too, offers us cues as to what to expect on screen.
While Ali struggles to make a living and provide for his son, and himself and his sister, Stephanie struggles to come to terms with her disability. She contacts Ali and so begins an odd friendship based on mutual sorrow (Ali’s offset by a blind willingness to do whatever seems “fun”) and a desire to somehow return to some sense or ‘normal’. Though we get the impression, and actually it is confirmed for us in a remarkably staid scene following Ali’s dalliance with a woman, that ‘normal’ is a very different concept for the two of them. Despite this, they continue to grow closer, and when Ali falls in with illegal Gypsy street-fighters and works for a security specialist installing illegal surveillance cameras, Stephanie goes along for the ride, enjoying both the excitement and the attentions of Ali.
Throughout all of this though, Ali never really seems to care. There are some unpleasant scenes involving his son, his sister bears the brunt of his legal contraventions and Stephanie is unable to break through his wall of masculine rigour. From the middle third of the film onwards, as Stephanie comes to terms with her traumatic life-changing event, the films begins to builds slowly but surely towards Ali’s. We remain unsure when it will come, and what will bring it about, only that it lies in wait for him, and he heads towards it like he does everything else in the world, with all the strength and arrogance and ignorance he can muster. And despite Ali’s unwillingness to acquiesce, it is a sly move on Audiard’s part that when it arrives, it involves one of Ali’s only possible roads to redemption. And while the ending is both powerful and slightly perplexing, we are prepared for it because everything that has happened before is so believable.
And this would be impossible and would all be to no avail were the film not held together by the two towering central performances. With each film, Marion Cotillard proves more and more that she has the capacity to be one of the great European actresses. The visual effects, however they were done, to depict her disability are flawless and realistic, but Cotillard is able to direct our entire attention (and more besides) just with her incredibly emotionally expressive face, upon which she has the uncanny ability of painting all of a scene’s required reactions simultaneously and independently, at the same time. Brilliant.
Matthias Schoenaerts is just as good. We are never in any doubt that what he does and what he says he really intends and means. He is enormous, and intimidating, and has the range of outbursts, both physical and emotional, to truly make Ali real. It’s just unfortunate that Schoenaerts’ considerable talents have gone into creating such a monstrous character. And this is one of the main problems I had with this film. Almost all of its good work, in all departments, is on the verge of counting for very little because it is just so damn difficult to care what happens to Ali. He is nearly irredeemably unlikeable, and when he suffers, and when he cries, a small part of me merely uttered Good, you deserve this. His performance may not make this film particularly pleasant to watch, but (at just 35) it will almost certainly ensure he gets to work with some top film-makers in the future.
A powerful and engrossing film, but a very difficult one to like.
Director: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Marion Cotillard, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners
Running time: 120min
Language : French w/ English subtitles