4 / 5 stars
After taking the 2009 Cannes Film Festival by storm with the barbaric yet brilliant crime drama, A Prophet, Jacques Audiard returns with Rust and Bone, another hard-hitting drama that’s got viewers buzzing thanks to another strong festival circuit showing. (Click on the movie poster for a larger version.)
Rust and Bone charts the unconventional romance between Marion Cotillard’s (Midnight in Paris) whale trainer, Stéphanie, and Matthias Schoenaerts’ struggling single father, Ali. They’re both lost souls, struggling with the lives they lead and desperately searching for meaning in their own individual ways.
After a brief encounter outside a nightclub, fate sees the two reconnect in a more personal way, with Stéphanie reaching out for Ali after she suffers a terrible accident that leaves her physically disabled and emotionally crippled. Though being complete opposites — Stéphanie is reclusive and withdrawn, fearing what people will think of her, Ali is spontaneous and selfish, on a path of self-destruction — the two find solace and acceptance in each other, forming a bond they find difficult to define yet impossible to resist.
Rust and Bone is compelling and unique, with Audiard steering the story in profound and unexpected directions. This is far from your straight-forward romance. With bloody bare-knuckle boxing, graphic sex, Stéphanie’s painstaking, hard-fought rehabilitation, and strained relationships all around, it’s challenging viewing. Yet in Audiard’s hands, it’s also hauntingly beautiful, never more so than in its depiction of the film’s tragic accident, with the director combining dreamlike imagery with Alexandre Desplat’s mesmerizing score in a majestic mix of beauty and horror.
It’s a superbly effective scene that remarkably makes a larger-than-life event feel understated and sincere, the film admirably cutting away to the immediate aftermath instead of detailing the specifics of the act itself. Equally strong is the follow-up, in which a distraught Stéphanie wakes to discover the life-changing consequences of her accident, with the heartbreak being further compounded by no one being there to help her come to terms with her living nightmare.
As uncomfortable as Rust and Bone can get, the discomfort serves to make the intermittent scenes of joy ever more uplifting. From Stéphanie rediscovering her love of the sea, to her emotionally charged return to the scene of her horrific ordeal, to Ali’s playful time spent with his young son, Audiard ensures you’re rewarded with some genuinely affecting, heartwarming scenes amid all the gritty drama. He keeps the tone at a consistent ebb throughout, even if the two-hour running time means the narrative occasionally meanders.
The strength of the contrasting central performances, and the charming chemistry between the two actors, really elevates Rust and Bone into a serious awards contender. Cotillard and Schoenaerts never fail to impress, the former exuding a quiet courage, the latter simmering with a raw, muscular intensity. Each have their standout scenes — Cotillard’s aforementioned return to the scene of the accident, Schoenaerts’ climactic ice-bound desperation — but their sequences together are likely to leave the lasting impression. Thoroughly deserving of the critical kudos currently heading its way, Rust and Bone is a superbly acted, brutally honest portrait of what it means to be lonely and human.