Rust and Bone

<em>Rust and Bone</em>

After the searing portrait of the French crime world and the lurid look at a life corrupted in 2010’s A Prophet, it seemed only natural that writer-director Jacques Audiard would follow up with a relationship drama about an underground MMA fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a killer whale trainer (Marion Cotillard), so it should surprise no one that is what he has done.

Based on Craig Davidson‘s collection of interrelated short stories, Rust and Bone follows wandering, hapless former boxer Ali (Schoenaerts) to the Mediterranean coast of France, looking for a new start in life with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdue). And he finds it in a form he would never have expected: recently-wounded trainer Stéphanie (Cotillard), who is starting her own life over as well, after an accident leaves her a double amputee.

An intense character study, marred somewhat by an episodic plot which does not combine its elements as well as it should, Rust and Bone is at its heart a contrast of opposites.

Even before her accident, Stéphanie is a raw nerve, feeling everything, but covered up in layers of social awareness that mostly, but not entirely, keep her from exploding and attacking the world around her. It’s in one of these attacks where she meets Ali, working as a bouncer at a nightclub, when he has to pick her up and clean her off for the first time.

The layers become even more pronounced after her accident, and Cotillard definitely has the hardest job of the film’s cast, as she has to constantly play Stéphanie’s outer reserve and inner turmoil against each other, and often silently, using just reactionary body language. Audiard knows just how to give her the right moments to make it work, and most of Rust and Bone‘s finest scenes are hers, from her approach to the whale which may have wounded her to her first glorious return to the water after losing her legs, as Ali takes it upon himself to help rehabilitate her for reasons he isn’t even aware of.

Because Ali is Stéphanie’s polar opposite, a man completely devoid of pretension. He is exactly what he seems, and what he says is exactly what he’s thinking. Unfortunately, that’s mainly a side effect of his complete lack of self-awareness. He doesn’t notice at all how much Stéphanie is attracted to his hideously masculine pursuits the way she was attracted to killer whales, especially once he begins fighting underground for extra cash to bolster his meager income as a security guard.

He also doesn’t notice how his innate selfishness separates him from — and even harms — his son, to the point where his sister eventually takes Sam from him for his protection. Ultimately Rust and Bone is what its characters are, but not in an obvious way. Despite their surface characteristics, Ali is the rusty metal, and Stéphanie is the brittle bone.

Nothing in the film is obvious, in fact, from the initial killer whale attack to the subtle way Audiard deals with his characters and their back stories. For all his faults as a father, Ali has still decided to rescue his son from his drug addict mother shortly before the film begins. For all her hidden ferocity, Stéphanie has been stuck in a relationship with a domineering boyfriend and seems to be looking for something else. We don’t know any more than that, nor are we likely to, but it doesn’t matter. It’s at the corners where art is made, and that’s where Rust and Bone comes alive.

Audiard keeps that aesthetic going throughout the film, as well, using a constant cinema verité style to hone in on the reality of these people. He never, however, falls into the trap of ugliness as a stand-in for truth, and cinematographer Stéphane Fontain has turned in a singularly beautiful film that never feels fantastic, even when putting forth its most indelible images.

Despite that, it doesn’t work as it should. The episodic nature of the source material is noticeable in the story itself, particularly in the way the plot shifts focus with a clunk from Ali to Stephanie and then back to Ali. It’s particularly noticeable in the jarring final act, after Ali runs off back to Belgium to become a professional MMA fighter and face his faults once and for all in a conclusion which is both heart-wrenching and undeservingly sweet. It doesn’t help that Ali’s nature makes it difficult to get inside him, as well, and thus to be affected by his actions.

It’s unfortunate, because Audiard clearly knows what he’s doing, and there is an excellent idea at the center of Rust and Bone and a lot of heart, as well. He just can’t quite put them together into a whole. But what great pieces.

Cast: Marion Cotillard as Stéphanie; Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali; Armand Verdue as Sam; Corinne Masiero as Anna; Céline Sallette as Louise; Bouli Lanners as Martial; Mourad Frarema as Foued; Jean-Michel Correia as Richard Yannick Choirat as Simon.

[Rust and Bone is playing at the River Oaks Theatre.]
(Why Not Productions --; UGC Distribution --; Sony Pictures Classic --; Rust and Bone --; Rust and Bone (Facebook) --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Friday, January 4th, 2013. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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