Rust and Bone could not have had a more apropos soundtrack to its trailer than M83′s “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea.” It’s a love story, yet Rust And Bone will sweep you off your feet in the most unromantic of ways, as though being swept away by an inexorable tide. Director Jacques Audiard follows up his last film, the highly-lauded and Oscar-nominated A Prophet, by delving deeper into some more emotional territory. Whereas A Prophet was about an Arab man who finds himself working for a Corsican gang while in prison and found an incendiary intensity to it, it lacked a bit in its character-developing angle. Rust And Bone (the title refers to the taste left in one’s bleeding mouth after being punched) is a raw and visceral powerhouse of a film.
Matthias Schoenaerts (who brings more of the brutish relentlessness he employed in his lead in the much-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Bullhead of last year) plays Ali, a former boxer. We first meet walking doggedly towards an unknown destination, trailed by his 5-year-old son, whom he barely knows. The two end up in the south of France, in Antibes, where they stay with Ali’s sister, whom he has not seen in five years. Yes, relationships are not Ali’s forte. He starts working as a bouncer, where he meets the brash and beautiful Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at Marineland, whom he literally rescues from a brawl she has incited. In his brutish, deadpan delivery, he remarks that she is “dressed like a whore,” and leaves his number with her matter-of-factly, expecting her to follow suit with all the other women who seem all to happy to fall in bed (not love) with him.
A freak accident at the marine park causes Stephanie to lose both of her legs. Despondent and literally broken, she reaches out to him, for lack of anyone else (pushing people away is definitely something Ali knows a thing or two about, also). Not one to let her guard down either, the two form a quiet bond: Ali never comments on her vulnerability or allows for any rumination on her new state, instead opting to build her up by simple gestures like bringing her to the beach and swimming with her on his back. Seemingly motivated out of nothing more than pure selfishness or lust, he nevertheless draws her out and away from a place of fissure.
Marion Cotillard’s performance absolutely steals the show. She portrays Stephanie’s fractured body and soul with a mesmerizing combination of vulnerability and steely strength. When Ali becomes involved in the brutal world of illegal street fighting, it is her singularity as “the woman with the steel legs” that allows her to enter it and give him the support his own broken self needs.
Rust and Bone does not mince any words; there are no sweeping, saccharine romantic gestures. The leads might as well be spitting “I love yous” through gritted teeth and blood-filled mouths. Both Stephanie and Ali are tough, barely reaching through to each other in the few chinks in their respective armors. Their characters, however, are very real, relentlessly and pitilessly so. Pulling no punches, this is a movie about fighting and surviving. While in some ways hearkening back to similar broken-body-and-spirit stories like The Wrestler, Rust and Bone is thoroughly unique in its ethos. The stunning cinematography of the sea and the fight scenes lend a cinema-veritas edge to the film that is equal parts beautiful and brutal. It is a haunting yet thoroughly engrossing film that stays true to Audiard’s oeuvre.