Film review: Rust and Bone

Marion Cotillard as Stephanie in Rust and Bone
Marion Cotillard as Stephanie in Rust and Bone
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ESCHEWING the tired formula of social realism, Jacques Audiard embraces the artifice of cinema to tell a human story of despair and redemption

Rust and Bone (15)

Directed by: Jacques Audiard

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Celine Sallette

Star rating: * * * *

There’s such a thirst for realism in arthouse cinema that when a whip-smart director like Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) comes along and subverts things by combining said desire with an unabashed love of genre and melodrama, the knee-jerk reaction is often to pull apart the plot contrivances rather than simply embrace the emotional responses they’re designed to elicit. That’s partly down to a mistaken belief that just because something is presented as naturalistic it’s inherently more authentic. The opposite, of course, can also be true, though Audiard’s trick is somewhat more sly. Coercing us into believing we’re in for some hard-hitting realism, he tends to sucker-punch us with the sort of heightened moments that could only really ever happen in a movie – and his technique is so seamless and effective, it sometimes becomes easier to doubt its validity than confront the fact that the more “realistic” moments require just as much artifice (actors, cameras, a script, lightening, a crew… ) to pull off as the blatantly cinematic ones.

That’s certainly the case with his latest film Rust and Bone. An odd-couple love story – revolving around a marine park worker beset by tragedy (Marion Cotillard) and a bare-knuckle brawler struggling to connect with his five-year-old son (Matthias Schoenaerts) – it’s so stuffed with big movie moments and conceits that to give any more than the briefest of plot outlines risks making the film sound overcooked. That’s par for the course with Audiard, though. On paper the premises for previous films Read My Lips (hearing-impaired lipreader and ex-con rehabilitate each other by pulling off a robbery), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (young thug is torn between a life of crime and his desire to become a concert pianist) and even A Prophet (uneducated nobody rises to the top via an extreme prison education) could charitably be dismissed as preposterous. On screen, however, it is this innate “movie-ness” that enables Audiard to not only capture and present vivid and vibrant portraits of human nature, but make them resonate in ways that are much more meaningful and memorable than those frequently found in lower-key, more determinedly social realist fare.

In Rust and Bone he achieves this largely by beginning with characters that are very much rooted in reality then letting us see them respond in credible ways to freak events that are so unbelievably extreme there’s no choice but to go with the emotional flow of the story. When we first meet Schoenaert’s Ali, for instance, he could be a character out of a film by the Dardenne brothers. Not only is he Belgian and living a transient, somewhat pugilistic existence, he clearly lacks the maturity to properly care for his son, whom he’s taking to live with his sister in a less-than-glamorous stretch of the Côte d’Azur so he can concentrate on fulfilling a dream to be a professional fighter. Cotillard’s Stephanie isn’t quite so readable. We first see her in the nightclub where Ali has taken temporary employment as a bouncer. Beautiful and forthright, she enjoys the attention she receives from men until that attention turns hostile – at which point things get ugly, necessitating Ali stepping in and saving the day.

The uneasy spark that seems to ignite between them may quickly be extinguished by subsequent revelations about Stephanie’s own domestic situation, but the inevitability of their involvement is never really in any doubt from this point on. Nevertheless, Audiard gets round such predictability in the most audacious fashion imaginable with an out-of-the-blue tragedy that devastates Stephanie’s life. Shot in a stunning, dream-like way that’s almost impressionistic, this tragedy also transforms the film as a whole, opening it up cinematically to accommodate an extraordinary and yet strangely believable exploration of the pitiless way nature can impinge on life and the unexpected bonds people form as they’re forced to work through the blows they’ve been dealt.

Here Cotillard does some of her finest work. Turning to Ali in despair, Stephanie has to rebuild her life with a man who is, to all intents and purposes, a stranger and Cotillard – vulnerable, resilient and utterly transfixing – gracefully manages to convey both the sense of shame that leads her down this path, as well as the desire that subsequently manifests itself when Ali’s indifferent, matter-of-fact approach to her situation begins to make her feel whole again.

She’s complemented by Schoenaert, who plays Ali with a bruising machismo that he takes care to strip of romanticism (the character’s behaviour to his own family is fairly repellent), and yet still manages to make appealing by letting the character’s humanity shine through at crucial moments. But it’s the sheer strangeness of their relationship, and Audiard’s willingness to use the full force of cinema to explore it in such an emotionally direct way, that makes Rust and Bone stand out.