Rust and Bone (2012)
written by: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
produced by: Jacques Audiard, Martine Cassinelli and Pascal Caucheteux
directed by: Jacques Audiard
rating: R (for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2012 (limited)
Sometimes a film can look like a potentially good watch simply by catching the synopsis and finding out who’s in it and who made it. Enticing talent can lead us to a film we may not considered and it’s a huge plus if the experience winds up being a positive one. That can be said for “Rust and Bone”, the latest film co-written and directed by Jacques Audiard, who made 2009’s excellent Oscar-nominated film “A Prophet”. Grounded by two magnetic lead performances from Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, “Rust and Bone” is a fascinating look at two people who endure tragedy and hardship, because they’ve no other choice. It may go off track a bit at times and is reluctant to dig deeper, but it thankfully never tugs on our heart-strings in its portrayal of human vulnerability and connection or lack thereof.
Although Cotillard’s performance is getting all the accolades related to the film, I wouldn’t say she has a central role. Audiard focuses on Schenaert’s character initially, eventually giving the two actors enough space to co-lead the film. To that effect, “Rust and Bone” (or “De rouille et d’os”) benefits from having two complicated and imperfect individuals to focus on, making the story a compelling and unpredictable one to follow. Don’t let any one summary of this film paint a particular picture for you. Just reading the general description of “Rust and Bone” might automatically cry “Oscar bait!” for some, but there’s more going on here than just award-grabbing performances.
The story takes place in modern-day Antibes, in southern France, where we meet Alain (Matthais Schoenaerts), the twentysomething single father of five-year-old Sam (newcomer Armand Verdue, a natural), who has come upon hard times. The athletically-built Belgian man had brief success as a prizefighting kickboxer in the past, but has now found himself arriving at his sister, Anna’s home looking for a place to live. Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband allow Ali a place for him and his son as he tries to earn stability by making some money as a bouncer in a local nightclub.
It is there where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after breaking up an altercation one night, which results in Alain driving her home in her car, to the disapproval of her live-in boyfriend. Alain is offers his help to the independent woman, who insists she’s fine. To his surprise, he learns that Stephanie is an orca trainer at a local marine park, realizing there’s more to this woman than just dressing like a prostitute for a night on the town. He leaves his number in case she ever needs anything and takes a cab back to his work. And that’s it. It’s improbable that these two loners will ever reconnect or cross paths.
Alain continues working, even taking on an ethically questionable side job, to make ends meet. He provides for his son, but he’s detached coldness prevents him from truly connecting with the boy. He seeks out casual sex like an animal, as his carnal desires see fit, with no interest in a commitment to any one relationship. After a while, Alain receives a call from out-of-the-blue – it’s Stephanie. He knows she’s different now, having recently been in the news after a horrible accident at the water park caused her to lose both her legs. She reaches out to him, asking to get together, which result in the two connecting at a hesitant pace, slowly bringing something hidden out of the other that is usually hidden by impenetrable defenses.
Just as Stephanie brings out an unseen tenderness in Alain, he is able to pull her out of an understandable depression, simply by his unfazed response to her physicality. He treats her as he would anyone else. He may help around her home and even carries her into the sea to get help her swimming again, but most importantly, he also has her doing things on her own. It may seem cold at first, but it’s good for Stephanie to experience someone treating her for who she is now, not mourning who she used to be.
The two soon develop a friendship with benefits. Something that’s second-nature for Alain, but kind of foreign for Stephanie, especially in her new state. She eventually takes an interest in another side gig he’s drawn to, that being the violent world of underground bare-knuckle fighting. At first, she’s taken aback by the brutality, but then finds herself attracted to his strength and the danger of it all. As they become closer, Stephanie finds herself conflicted with Alain’s behavior and, despite falling in love with him, she must determine just where she fits both in his and in her own physically-challenged body.
“Rust and Bone” is a blunt film that faces destructive behaviors and challenging setbacks head on. Audiard’s work here focuses on raw emotions, pulling realistic portrayals out of courageous actors, that frees the film from any maudlin soap opera territory. At times, it feels like Audiard is taking an approach similar to the Dardennes (“The Kid with the Bike”), emphasizing a respectful intimacy to the characterizations over a deliberate narrative drive. Unfortunately, there are also times when supporting characters like Sam and Anna are all but forgotten. These roles become serviceable though when Alain’s character needs to fulfill a recognizable arc, especially in a gut-wrenching scene near the film’s end.
The script, co-written by Audiard and his “A Prophet” collaborator, Thomas Bidegain, takes bits and pieces from short stories written by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. One can only assume based on what Audiard and Bidegain have adapted that the source material focuses on damaged people who engage and disengage with each other, finding as much success as they do failure. Overall, what we see on the screen are compelling characters that are easy to be drawn to. One downside to the screenplay is how there really doesn’t seem to be much to Stephanie beyond what happens to her. I guess that can be enough considering how excellent Cotillard is in the role, but it would’ve been nice to see as many layers to her as there are to Schoenaert’s Alain.
When the two actors are together, they are superbly matched. Schoenaerts, who starred in last year’s Oscar-nominated Belgian film “Bullhead” has a strong physical presence on the outside with a quite contemplative interior. He may resemble Ryan Gosling in looks, but he has the physical forcefulness of a Tom Hardy, exuding a machismo brood along with a contagious charm. Cotillard, working with the impressive visual effects that Audiard employs, never feels overly emotional or mugging the camera with tear-stained expressions. Instead, she offers something that teeters between melancholy and jolts of stimulated determination. The two actors have palpable chemistry and sexual attraction, portraying characters who allow carnal desires to take over any physical hurdles.
The film’s score was composed by Alexandre Desplat, who’s had quite a year in 2012, scoring a wide range of noteworthy films. This seems to be his most emotional and sensitive work, incorporating a variety of instruments (from throbbing horns to pulsing pianos) to form an intricate and reflective soundtrack. Audiard also showcases a wide range of popular music as well, which can be kind of jarring (like Katey Perry’s “Firework” and “I Like to Move It’, straight out of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” – strange) and also placed in appropriate moments, like Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” and M83’s “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea”.
In the end, “Rust and Bone” surprised me by offering more than I expected. Alain’s concerning anger and questionable (albeit well-intentioned) parenting skills captured my attention throughout, coming to a frightening head toward the film’s conclusion. The film is quite a showcase for both Cotillard and Schoenaerts, but solidifies for me that Audiard is a powerful director who will likely continue to deliver captivating films featuring compelling characters.