Rust and Bone Review

(2.5 STARS)

It begins with a rush of dreamlike imagery before cutting to a pair of feet, running in sandals. Our male protagonist scolds his son for obnoxiously kicking the seat in front of him while riding a train. The first thing we see of our female protagonist is her feet, after she’s knocked down in a nightclub brawl.

Yes, legs factor so heavily into Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone that his distracting overemphasis on the lower halves of his characters’ physiques almost passes muster. After all, the loss of one individual’s legs (to a killer whale) is what ultimately drives the plot. But Audiard’s heavy-handedness isn’t relegated simply to shots of feet. Here, we have a romance that should be powerful and uplifting but isn’t at all because there are too many disparate, bizarre, and unsettling things going on.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, a wandering single father who’s moving to southern France to live with his sister. He takes a few odd jobs, including bouncer at a nightclub. It’s there he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who gets bloodied up a bit outside Ali’s club. He drives her home, calls her a whore, and leaves his number in case she ever needs some muscle.

Stephanie trains whales at Marineland, but not long after meeting Ali, she’s involved in a horrific accident. Now a double amputee, Stephanie is a shell of a human being. She can’t face anyone, but in Ali, she sees someone so raw, animalistic, and unappealing that the new Stephanie can actually relate to him. They make good companions; she begins accompanying him to his bare-knuckle street fights while he takes her swimming in the ocean. But as their relationship becomes more, his worst tendencies come out.

If it weren’t for the circumstances that bring them together, the romance between Ali and Stephanie would be relatively pedestrian. Rust and Bone arrives at a frustratingly predictable place, but the journey there is fraught with odd twists of fate. Some of these moments feel authentic—others are real eye-rollers. The constant is the way you hope each turn—whether it be plot manipulation or a character’s change of heart—will send the film toward a more satisfying end. But it never happens.

Audiard’s shining moment within the film is Stephanie’s accident. It’s never shown in a very straightforward way. In real time, we see it through an underwater camera that looks up at debris—first an orca, then part of the stage, Stephanie herself, and finally, billowing pools of red blood—falling into the pool in near silence. After that, it’s always a discontinuous jumble of half-remembered moments. If the relationship was handled in a similarly careful but surprising way, Rust and Bone could be one of the year’s best, but this scene is so head-and-shoulders above everything going on around it that it’s hard to praise much else, even the performances of its two accomplished leads.

Cotillard made a name for herself by winning the Best Actress award for her turn in 2007 French film La Vie en Rose, and she managed to parlay that success into major roles in American blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. Back in the saddle for a high-profile, auteur-driven French film, many have pegged Cotillard for an Oscar nomination. It’s a big role that calls for dramatic physicality, and while the actress’ try is admirable, something about Stephanie never really clicks.

From the outset, we never really have a reason to care about her. Following the nightclub fight, she’s standoffish to both Ali and her boyfriend at home. Even in the minutes leading up to the accident, she never feels present. So the big dramatic shift that must occur when she loses her legs becomes merely a physical feat; she transforms from a cold woman with legs to cold woman without legs. Yes, she’s more shaken and vulnerable than she was before, but an opportunity is missed to make us really feel invested in her and her journey toward acceptance and discovery. It’s as much (if not more so) the fault of the screenplay as it is Cotillard, but very little the actress does on the screen makes up for her faults on the page.

That said, Stephanie sure is a joy compared to Ali. Here’s a guy who physically abuses his son, takes pleasure in beating the piss out of other men, illegally spies on minimum-wage workers at supermarkets across his town, and tells Stephanie he’ll have sex with her anytime she wants, as long as he isn’t with someone else. Of course, he’s this way by design, but such a disdainful character (who’s played by Schoenaerts in such a low-key way) is never one an audience is going to feel invested in. In fact, you’re more likely to root for Ali and Stephanie to permanently part ways than you are them to live happily ever after.

It’s a tricky thing when you have decidedly unlikable characters leading a film, and if Rust and Bone did more right than wrong, one might be more likely to have calculated, reasoned reaction to it. Because it’s by and large a failure, ill will toward its characters—especially Ali—could easily drive you to a more visceral, reactionary place. Whatever the case, it’s always a shame when great talent is wasted, and Rust and Bone has few equals in that department this year. Audiard, Cotillard, and Schoenaerts are among the most admired individuals on the international film scene, but their latest is a real whale of a disappointment.

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