Rust and Bone
Ali is a penniless man with his five-year-old son Sam to take care of. While crashing at his sister’s place, he gets a job as a bouncer at a local nightclub, relying on his abilities as a former street fighter. Stéphanie is a woman who works as a killer whale trainer at a marine mammal amusement park. They meet at the club where he works after she is attacked in a bar brawl. Nothing of consequence occurs between the two. He leaves his number and they part ways. Then, following a tragic accident that leaves her disfigured, she calls up the derelict man out of the blue and the two enter into a relationship of sorts.
On the surface Rust and Bone is an uplifting drama detailing the triumph of the spirit, but that horribly clichéd phrase doesn’t even come close to doing this movie justice. It’s raw, sexual and completely without pity, much like our male protagonist Ali. Impoverished and nomadic, he is a brute force that inexplicably meshes with the more emotional and financially secure Stéphanie. Although both have imperfect lives that need fixing, she would appear to have little in common with Ali. But at this very low point in her existence she reaches out to him and his response gives her renewed faith and a will to live.
At the heart of Rust and Bone are two really powerful performances from Marion Cotillard and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. The nature of their relationship is akin to something Tennessee Williams might write about. Marion Cotillard tries to subvert her beauty to embody the grit behind a woman who has all but given up on life. She’s incredible, we’ve come to expect that from her at this juncture in her career . What’s surprising is relative newcomer Schoenaerts who matches her for intensity. He garnered indie praise as the star of Bullhead which was the Belgian nominee for best foreign film in 2011. That picture raised his profile, but this should be an even bigger breakthrough. He’s charismatic in a way that has people already inviting comparisons to actors like Tom Hardy or Jason Statham. The story is equally focused on him, actually more so, and his shocking lack of sympathy, but undiminished desire, is reassuring to her.
Jacques Audiard, who was responsible for 2009’s much lauded A Prophet, wisely knows when to have his stars minimize theatrics and let the moment speak for itself. One of my favorite scenes is indicative of the attitude of the film. In one particularly brutal bare knuckle fight, Ali is badly beaten on the ground, face bloodied from being hammered. Sitting on the sidelines, Stéphanie watches helpless from the car. As he’s being pummeled, his eyes catch the sight of her stepping out from the protection of the van. One anticipates her to come barreling from the parked vehicle, hysterical and sobbing uncontrollably. You foresee Stéphanie throwing herself over the combatants in order to stop the bout. But she does none of these things. The lower half of her legs are in view as they step forward out of the car. She walks calmly toward the two men, and then stands, like an inspiration to her man. Galvanized by her presences, he is inspired to summon what little strength he has left to fight back.
Rust and Bone is the most unsentimental sentimental picture I saw this year. It’s also the most romantically unromantic. It’s a tale of contrasts and it’s those contradictions that make the chronicle so unpredictable. It’s a narrative that is not easily categorized because its outlook is rather unconventional. It subverts the conventions of a traditional (read Hollywood) romance at every turn. Theirs is not a typical love story. However it emphasizes the need to be loved and the physical passion that goes along with that love. As the melodrama begins to pile up near the end, one setback after another almost – almost! – threatens to derail a saga shaded in nuance. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. This remains a thoroughly engaging portrait of two disparate people who oddly need each other.