Jacques Audiard, the director behind the Grand Prix winning A Prophet and now Rust And Bone, is just a couple steps away from Hollywood. The story, about the unlikely relationship between a kickboxing, neglectful single father and an orca whale trainer who loses her legs, is the familiar tale of unlikely love and overcoming a major obstacle. Audiard uses popular music, from Bon Iver to B-52’s to Katy Perry to Bruce Springsteen, to deliver the desired emotional punch in the occasional impressionistic montages, and there is (frankly, excessive) use of slow motion and abandonment of sound at the most intense moments of the story. He even cast the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard, whose most recent films were acclaimed hits like Midnight In Paris, Public Enemies, and Christopher Nolan-helmed titans Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.
Mind you, this is far from a bad thing. Audiard makes these tropes fresh and maintains his art-house sensibilities with mostly long takes and deliberate (but not slow) pacing while making great use of the crossover oriented elements, too. Often (not-so) jokingly called a hipster and music snob, I never thought I would be so happy to hear “Firework” not once, but twice. Likewise, the story is able to reach an agreeable conclusion but never approaches sentimentality or unnecessary melodrama in doing so. Stephanie (Cotillard) loses her legs early in the picture, has only a scene or two of her grim depression, and then is mostly at terms with what she has left. Audiard does not shy away from showing Stephanie in her less-fortunate state, which, along with very convincing CGI, allows us to accept her state as quickly as she appears to. Audiard’s camera never treats her as less of a person than her MMA-fighting counterpart, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts). Likewise, we see some brutal punches during Ali’s bouts, but they never border on excessive; for a film with such a concern for accepting and utilizing your body to its fullest, this is crucial—one might recall that Ben Lewin’s The Session received a fair share of criticism for refusing to show the disabled body as openly as Helen Hunt’s attractive body—and Rust And Bone remains frank but far from gratuitous with its visual style.
With its foundations more than taken care of, we don’t have to worry about being gored out of the film and we can instead focus on the drama at hand. Perhaps because Stephanie was able to detect Ali’s unsentimental, pitiless attitude in their first meeting, she figures he will be just the person to help her heal, and so she calls him up and he effortlessly gets her to swim despite a bad experience the last time she was near water. It’s a pretty unlikely happening all the way around, but everything is played so nonchalantly that we don’t question it, it’s groundwork for the real story, which, while clear enough, is a bit muddled as far as subtext goes. That Ali is willfully destroying his body and the body of others while Stephanie is still learning to live without all of her body never feels more than incidental. Ali is far too good a fighter, and his injuries disappear within a scene of their infliction, as Stephanie merely watches, without reacting, to these fights on all but one melodramatic occasion. It’s a bit too understated, which, while significantly better than being overstated like this sort of material almost always is, also makes it easy to question whether Ali’s fights really add anything to the film besides the idea of a story to follow.
It turns out that they do. Rust And Bone is partly about dreams, loved and lost. Despite Ali’s cold exterior and bad priorities—he makes extra money doing illegal camera-installing for businesses, he often prefers random sexual encounters to Stephanie, and he neglects his child regularly, leaving his sister to take care of him—the script is balanced enough to show both his good and bad side. His fuse is so short we might be inclined to question how much he really cares about his son, but seeing him with Stephanie, we know he is good-hearted at the core. It’s unfortunate that Stephanie is not given the same attention as Ali; the more she recovers, the less a place she seems to have in the narrative. Her character occasionally feels too often like a love interest, elevated by Cotillard’s strong, desirous performance. We never get to see her dark side, which makes Ali less likable by comparison. But Schoenaerts is at least as good, and the chemistry between the two is the film’s biggest treat, traveling across different levels of love and friendship that the inability for us to pinpoint them becomes the biggest reason for the audience to get involved and the reassurance that Ali does care for his son—it’s when he’s with Stephanie that he is best to him.
It seems unlikely that a brooding, patient character study like A Prophet should be followed by a tale rife with emotion and inclined toward excess. But Audiard makes it work perfectly here, and although Audiard and his writing partner, Thomas Bidegain, did not have with Rust And Bone what they had with A Prophet, that such an overdone tale is delivered in such a fresh and intelligent way establishes Audiard as a versatile director, bound to gather more mainstream attention without compromising his storytelling abilities.