It’s a very rare thing to see a film that one can describe as wholly powerful. A lot of films have moments which have power but all the way through the extraordinary Rust and Bone, director Jacques Audiard commands our attention from the very first frames with a staggering collage of supremely impressive cinematography, beautiful score and an intimate, unusual love story driven by two immaculate performances.
Rust and Bone tells the story of Ali, a down and out, emotionally tormented, dysfunctional single father who is travelling with his son Sam from Belgium. They live day to day, finding scraps of food and hitching rides to help them reach Antibes where he intends to reunite with his estranged sister Anna. When they reach the seaside town, some sense of stability is restored to their lives. Ali finds a job with a security company and Sam is put into school, while Anna takes care of both of them, making sure that each have a comfortable roof over their heads and clean clothes on their backs.
Through his job as a nightclub bouncer, Ali happens across the equally troubled Stephanie, someone who seems to have trouble with human interaction. She has caused a fight in the club and after Ali takes her home she nearly causes another argument with her boyfriend. In fact, her greatest relationship is with the orcas she works with at Marineland. But this relationship comes undone too when one of the shows goes massively wrong and she loses both her legs when one of the orcas attacks her. Now severely disabled, Stephanie forges that brief moment of kindness from Ali into a strong romantic relationship after having lost everything dear to her.
For a film which is almost entirely a two hander, Rust and Bone‘s success (whatever other merits the film might conceal) was always going to rest on whether or not the two central performances work and if they could make that relationship seem absolutely convincing. Especially when we consider the extremely bizarre set up that Audiard offers here. It is absolutely a testament to Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts that Rust and Bone works on that very basic level, both of their performances are stunning and two of the year’s best.
Having been sidelined into supporting roles for the past few years (which were never really good enough to support her amazing talent), Cotillard thrusts herself firmly centre stage in absolutely barnstorming fashion. She makes her first appearance about 15 – 20 minutes in and from there on out she completely dominates. Her embodiment of Stephanie is both emotionally and physically remarkable. From a technical point of view, she is flawless, creating one of the most realistic and sensitive portrayals of a disability I have ever seen. That being said, it is Cotillard’s emotional journey throughout the film that is the element that really impresses here.
At first she seems to be made of steel, unfettered completely by any emotion and seeming to be a totally hollow human being. As the film progresses she truly learns to love life again and it is this arc that gives the film its beating, engorged heart. Of course, through this story we get the other side of the partnership, the character who aids Stephanie through her turmoil, the towering Ali played magnificently by Matthias Schoenaerts.
Schoenaerts’ portrayal of this bruised, bruising, detached yet also understanding character is just as good as Cotillard’s. While she is allowed to truly “act” and completely show a wide range of her dramatic talent, Schoenaerts keeps his performance brilliantly low key. Aside from a few details, Ali’s past is kept very deliberately from us and his motivations for his actions are also kept relatively close to the filmmaker’s chest, but all that backstory and all of Ali’s inner workings are displayed in the movements of Schoenaerts’ performance.
Ali’s wise world-weariness but also petulant teenage rage are sublimely captured in fleeting moments throughout the film but all build upon the character. The more we see of this side of him, oddly enough the more we come to care about him. Even in the latter half of the film where some of his actions become downright reprehensible, in a weird way we completely understand them. That is the sign of a devoted and totally convincing performance. Schoenaerts and Cotillard also have dynamite screen chemistry and they make that central relationship work terrifically, neither overshadows the other because the performances are so different and aiming for different things.
Audiard is a brilliant filmmaker and unlike many of his European contemporaries he doesn’t constantly strive for hyper realism, in fact he runs very clearly away from it. This allows him to occasionally slip into melodrama, the kind of melodrama so often attributed to sentimental Hollywood fare, which in the eyes of many critics disservices Rust and Bone in its final moments. It is true that there is a significant melodramatic plot device used towards the end but because the genre Rust and Bone is closest to is probably melodrama, I don’t have any issue with this. I really want to see the day where ‘melodramatic’ is no longer bandied around like an insult.
Whether Rust and Bone is as good or better than Audiard’s previous work A Prophet is something only time will tell. A Prophet is a film that similarly had a certain metaphysical element which is less prevalent in Rust and Bone but it had a fiercer bite and had something much more to say.
That’s not to say that Rust and Bone doesn’t have a certain rawness and brutality (which it absolutely does) but it doesn’t quite hit the same level as A Prophet. And while the previous work is a longer film, it is much more successful in tying up its various subplots into the main story which Rust and Bone doesn’t quite manage to do. The scenes with the son, while excellent, are few and far between and occasionally it feels like the character is forgotten about.
Despite that I still stand by my statement of Rust and Bone‘s power. It is a thoroughly absorbing film and while its story may at first seem ridiculous it is one of the most moving, original pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite some time. This is one of the year’s best films.