Romantic but pitiless, fearlessly emotional and edgy, Rust and Bone is a powerhouse. It's the kind of risky venture only a consummate filmmaker could manage, and then only with the help of actors who are daring and accomplished. With Jacques Audiard in charge and Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts as stars, all the pieces have fallen exactly into place.
The story details the relationship between an arrogant trainer of orcas whose world is shattered when she loses her legs and a brutish street fighter whose thoughts are exclusively about himself. It's set in a bleak and violent contemporary France where we worry about the protagonists' physical and psychological well-being because we know we have to.
Audiard, whose last film was the Oscar-nominated A Prophet, has created an unapologetically melodramatic film (inspired in part by Lon Chaney/Tod Browning silent films such as The Unknown) whose aim, he said at the film's Cannes premiere, was "to look emotions in the eye and take them to the end, even to risk going too far and being excessive and ridiculous."
It is Schoenaerts' Ali we encounter first, a former boxer walking with unwavering determination and trailed by his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), an uncertain child he barely knows. These two end up in Antibes, in France's south, staying with Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), whom he has not seen in five years.
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Clearly, personal relationships are not Ali's strength. He is a bruiser, physically and psychologically, and Schoenaerts, gifted at playing both sides of that equation, expertly creates a detached, self-involved man no one gets close to.
Ali signs on as a bouncer at a club where he encounters Stéphanie (Cotillard). An angry, on-edge woman who enjoys provoking men, Stéphanie is as much trouble as Ali. He meets her because she has incited a brawl in which she has been knocked out.
After driving her home, Ali leaves his phone number as a reflex, but he could not care less if Stéphanie calls, and she doesn't.
Then Stéphanie loses her legs in an orca attack. While state-of-the art CGI work makes her diminished body undeniably real, it is Cotillard who makes what has happened to her believable. Stéphanie's no-holds-barred hysteria, followed by desperation, pain and despair, is communicated largely without words in a performance that is remarkable for vulnerability thrillingly conveyed.
While Stéphanie is dealing with a radically changed life, Ali gets involved in no-holds-barred, illegal street fighting. He's drawn by the money and, for someone almost immune to fear, because it's fun.
Then, unexpectedly, Stéphanie calls and asks him to visit. He shows up and is unconcerned, even indifferent to what has happened to her, which is just what she is looking for. At least at first.
It is the business of Rust and Bone to take us along as this atypical relationship unfolds, to draw us in as Stéphanie and Ali attempt to figure out what is possible for them on emotional levels neither has been comfortable with before. They don't make it easy for each other, and Audiard makes it equally difficult for the audience: He insists we take these people for who they are, without illusions, without pity, protagonists in a violent fairy tale that is true to itself to the very last frame.
'Rust and Bone'
5 stars out of 5
R for some violence, language, brief graphic nudity and strong sexual content. In French with subtitles. Sony Pictures Classics. 2:02. Kentucky.