Down on his luck Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) arrives, young son in tow, to live with his sister after his marriage ends. Picking up work as a nightclub bouncer he encounters Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer for whom life changes dramatically following an accident at work. Reaching out to Ali in her time of need, a relationship between the pair begins.
Director, Jacques Audiard describes the London Film Festival Best Film winner, Rust and Bone, as a direct response to his last outing (A Prophet, 2009 – which also took home the top prize); moving from darkness and claustrophobia towards light and love, and he has certainly created a beautiful, vibrant and visceral picture.
The screen bleeds sunshine; Stéphane Fontaine’s gorgeous cinematography picking up every hint of it and letting it take front and centre in as many frames as possible though that is not to say it is without its own darkness. The tentative relationship between the two leads is a wonderful study of two people discovering each other as much as they discover themselves in their new existence through an open, if challenging, friendship.
There is excellent use of humour during a gloriously funny moment of (let’s call it what it is) casual sex and Cotillard and Schoenaerts are both engaging and committed. The script is witty and forthright and succeeds in drawing in the audience as we watch Ali and Stéphanie starting these new lives and learning to communicate with one another and the world, be it through flirtation, honesty or emotional/physical violence.
Matthias Schoenaerts is a revelation as the big man with an excess of charisma and a big heart that he uses almost solely to charm his way into women’s beds. He is a wonderfully complex character; his relationship with his son is played out with impatience and violence and, having previously lost touch with his sister, their time together is nothing less than fraught as she provides for and takes care of his child. You wouldn’t think the odds of him having a successful, loving relationship would be very good, but along comes Marion Cotillard in a role that screams ‘Oscar’ (although it is the SFX department that truly deserve the nomination) due to her subtlety and its range.
Stéphanie is a vibrant, confident young woman; accused of sluttery by both strangers and her current partner, she radiates desirability and edge. After her accident Cotillard shifts the performance down a couple of gears with great effect, turning in on herself and letting herself go before Ali gives her the opportunity to rise above her new circumstances.
The main problem with Rust and Bone is that, despite the apparent difficulties in their lives, the two main characters seem to float on happily enough. Ali finds his new jobs with ease while Stéphanie appears to move beyond the potential difficulties of her injuries without any major setbacks. Things just come too easily to them. Yes, it is a great opportunity to explore the two characters without too much melodrama but it deadens the emotion somewhat so that, while the film presents itself as a study of loss and a new found approach to life, it is less bruising than it could (and should) be.
Essentially, Rust and Bone is an 8/10 film that loses a mark for lack of commitment. It is nigh on impossible to fully explain its key disappointment without giving anything away but the film is cheapened when it becomes apparent that Audiard is more interested in catharsis than reality.
The film has the opportunity to be truly crushing and haunt you for days but is let down by the director’s decision not to fully commit to its emotional potential. The final few scenes certainly leave you raw, but it may be for all the wrong reasons.
Rust & Bone is in cinemas from November 2nd