From the director of A Prophet, surely one of the finest films of the last decade, comes this masterful, deeply affecting drama. Gone are the themes of organised crime and ethnicity that permeated Jacques Audiard’s two previous films, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, in favour of man’s struggle against poverty and tragedy and a study of the scars this struggle leaves on the human body and soul. While Rust and Bone does not aspire to such extraordinary heights as A Prophet’s ‘The Godfather meets The Shawshank Redemption bathed in the Quran’, it is still a hugely ambitious film that paints a unique picture of human nature in broad strokes with a surprisingly simple story.
Matthias Schoenaerts, a hitherto (shamefully) unknown actor outside of his native Belgium, plays Ali, a gruff, emotionally withdrawn man who has just wrenched his son away from the boy’s junkie mother. Hoping to build a new life for their barely-a-family, Ali takes the boy to the south of France, where his sister and her husband live just above the poverty line.
Working as a bouncer in a local nightclub, Ali meets Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a deeply unhappy free spirit, who’s only small pleasure in life outside of her work is teasing men with her beauty and sexuality, to the dismay of her boyfriend. Her work as a trainer of killer whales at a marine resort is what keeps her going, until a horrifying tragedy leaves her a double amputee from the knees down. Alone and bitter, she turns to Ali for unsympathetic support, and a friends-with-benefits relationship soon develops, with unspoken feelings clawing underneath the icy surface.
Rust and Bone weaves an astonishing tale, melded together from two short stories by the Canadian author Craig Davidson. One part bitter love story, one part human struggle, it is always a mesmerising experience. Stéphanie’s rebirth is difficult but moving viewing, and the confidence she gains in her disability speaks tomes. Struggling for cash, Ali takes to bare-knuckle boxing, using his terrifying brute strength for the good of his son. Not since Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia has a film been more obsessed with the power and beauty of the human body – although here it is the imperfections that give the bodies their strength.
The film is full of understated brilliance. After her accident, we never see Stéphanie’s boyfriend again. We can judge him for abandoning her, or accept that due to her treatment of him he used her accident as a way out. The film lets us decide. An early throwaway line of dialogue about the contents of a fridge has enormous consequences further down the line. A bloody handprint on a pane of glass says more than any words could.
Continuing their relationships since The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine continue to prove themselves the finest operators of handheld cameras currently working in the cinematic arts. Despite the constant movement of the frame, the images captured are always clear and in focus. The lens is bombarded with Mediterranean sunlight, causing beautiful backlit images and stunning shadows. A dislodged, bloody tooth spinning on tarmac in slow motion carries more emotional weight than a dozen jaw-breaking fist fights. Stéphanie’s accident is shot in a frantic surge of camera movements more terrifying than the most nightmarish horror films. Later, she comes face to face with an orca – her passion and her undoing – which in a single steady shot swirls into focus from the darkness of its tank; it is an image more eye-boggling and alien than many fantasy films can even dream of conjuring.
In the lead roles Schoenaerts and Cotillard exceed all expectations. Schoenaerts takes Ali, who on paper is a bad, violent person, and finds a passionate, if weakened humanity in his hulking form. Cotillard soars through a kaleidoscope of emotions; rebellious, joyous, depressed; capturing each one effortlessly through her face and voice. Aided by some impressive special effects that digitally wipe her lower legs from countless frames, Cotillard demonstrates the pride and exhausting effort of starting over after becoming disabled, as well as the embarrassment and shame that can sadly all too often accompany disability.
With an unexpected denouement that will sink hearts into stomachs around the world, Rust and Bone is a hypnotic melodrama throughout. It may not hit with the same punch as A Prophet, but its life-affirming story of overcoming the harshest obstacles makes it one of the finest dramas in recent years. Audiard has done it again.