On paper, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone seems unwatchable. The screenplay was adapted from a collection of short stories and this collection of disjointed vignettes do not appear to structure a unified narrative arc. Thankfully, films are not watched on paper and Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenearts’ brilliant performances make this movie not only watchable, but also intensely emotional.
Schoenearts plays Ali, a bouncer-cum-security guard-cum-street fighter, newly arrived in the French Riviera with Sam, his five-year-old son played by Armand Verdure. Ali rescues Stephanie, a marine park whale trainer played by Cotillard, from a fight during his nightclub bouncer job. For a while they do not connect again until Stephanie loses her legs to a whale in an accident at the marine park. In her lonely desperation, she reaches out to Ali and the two fall in love after a series of hookups. While Stephanie regains her self-confidence with lots of graphic sex, Ali neglects and abuses his son in his pursuit of a career in illegal street fighting.
The relationship between Ali and Stephanie forms the main plot, built on stellar performances by both Cotillard and Schoenearts. Cotillard is convincingly both independent and fragile. Her character draws strength from continuing to be attractive to other men after losing her legs. Schoenearts, on the other hand, plays a brusque, violent individual who manages to be tender in his own, blunt way. Their raw, physical chemistry makes up for many of the film’s narrative problems, particularly the contrived way they end up together.
The arc where the aggressive, repressed street fighter and the suicidal, disabled whale trainer become friends, lovers and then intimates, saving each other in the process could have been unified into a more linear narrative. Unfortunately, either more needed to be done with Ali’s relationship with Sam, or much less; his unsettling absence and aggression go mostly unremarked and entirely unresolved. The title of the movie, which refers to the taste of blood, would suggest that Stephanie succeeds in her initial resistance to Ali’s fighting, but instead she is turned into his agent, in an utterly unnecessary, contrived fantasy.
Audiard redeems his role in the regrettable screenplay with mostly adept direction. While a bit self-indulgent at times, both the cinematography and the score enhance emotional involvement.
The same effectiveness applies to the many poetic montages: from the gory fight scenes to Stephanie and Ali’s gratuitous sex scenes. The viewer almost gets used to watching Stephanie spectate Ali’s illegal street fights from the car she is restricted to as a woman, working to obscure the violence itself in favor of Stephanie’s worry and excitement.
The most talked-about part of this movie, the special effects that rendered Cotillard legless for the great bulk of it, actually seems fairly insignificant during the actual viewing experience. One quickly forgets that Cotillard is not, in fact, a double amputee, and her stumps become an important part of her character.
Rust and Bone is far from perfect, but its narrative inconsistencies are not particularly concerning when compared to Cotillard and Schoenearts’ emotional tour de force. They make you care, not necessarily about their troubled characters as individuals, but about the intimate connection between them.