Rust and Bone is the new film from French director Jacques Audiard, who a few years back gave us the excellent A Prophet. It tells the story of Ali (Bullhead’s Matthias Schoenaerts,) a man who, along with his young son, moves from Belgium to France to live with his sister and find work. It is clear from the opening scenes as he collects the scraps of others’ leftover food to feed his son that this is a man incapable of properly raising a child. Once in France, he begins working as a security guard and competes in underground gypsy boxing matches for extra money and, quite frankly, just the violent thrill. He also meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard,) a sad and equally lost killer whale trainer from a local marine park. One day during the orca show, she suffers a horrific accident and loses both her legs, which ends up bringing these two closer.
Even before the accident, Rust and Bone has the specter of something horrible hanging over it. It’s dour and sad. Misery in a film is never a problem for me, but I found this to be overwrought. Stephanie’s sadness and her long vacant looks feel no different after the accident as they did before. Although physically her life has changed I felt no real emotional change. That could be the point, but her character’s overall ambiguity and apathy clouds that concept. I don’t buy her change because I never understood who she was before. There is a moment of triumphant earnestness where from her wheelchair she begins rehearsing the hand signals she used to direct the whales with (set un-ironically to Katy Perry’s “Firework”). But is her desire to get back in the tank with them? This scene hints at it but the overall idea is never explored.
Stephanie’s bigger change comes from her relationship with Ali and his easy going reaction to her loss of legs. He becomes a friend with benefits to Stephanie. But Ali is not a good man. He is inconsiderate of everyone’s feelings and has no regard for the wellbeing of his child. Again this is not a problem except for the fact the film attempts to redeem his character. Cinema is filled with unredeemable characters, but if you decide to throw in a redemption for them, you had better stick the landing. Rust and Bone asks us to believe Ali grows as a person. I would argue he does not despite a heavy handed coda to the film that states otherwise.
Problems aside, the film is strongest when it is about this couple. Too often we are taken away from their relationship to deal with domestic issues Ali (and the audience) doesn’t care nearly as much about. Their relationship is about physicality. Physicality is what the film deals best with. As he was in Bullhead, Matthias Schoenaerts is a presence. His size intimidates. It’s the opposite of the broken-down Stephanie, a physically strong woman now unable to move around without assistance. This juxtaposition is easily the most interesting thing about the film.
Marion Cotillard is a wonderful actress and is already getting Oscar buzz for this role. I can’t help but feel the triumph is more about the special effects than her acting. Visually, the way her leg-less body interacts with Ali in both simple scenes at a café and later as his lover is impressive. You never question the reality of it. But missing legs don’t make a performance and at the end of the day Cotillard, as well as the film, are too one note.