One of the first images that writer and director Jacques Audiard delivers in Rust and Bone is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his 5-year old son Sam (Armand Verdure) on a train, scavenging for food to survive. At the core of these first few glimpses into the father-son duo’s relationship lies the theme of the movie: the struggle for life. Later on, we see the characters in the film fight for happiness, love, sex, survival: the elements that shape and define our existence.
It quickly becomes apparent that our male protagonists are fleeing from some vague, unnamed situation involving Ali’s ex-wife to his sister Anna’s house in the resort beach town of Antibes in the south of France. Ali and Sam have a strained father-son relationship as Ali is too caught up in his own life to parent, while Sam defies familial conventions, casually referring to his father by his first name. Ali is a big, straightforward man. He says little but makes each word count. He puts his physical strength to use as a club bouncer and security guard. In his off hours, he unleashes his aggression through boxing at the gym. While bouncing, Ali meets Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer, who he rescues from a fight then escorts home. During that first meeting, Stéphanie flaunts her long legs and bloody face, exuding a raw, animalistic sexuality — a quality Ali also possesses.
The next time we see Stéphanie is during a horrific accident that robs her of those long legs. Without them, she loses her primal magnetism and animalistic sexuality. In fact, she is barely holding on to life at all; she simply exists, swimming in the endless depths of her own despair. The disaster is caused by a whale obeying its own natural inclinations rather than its trainers. The idea that one is inextricably bound to one’s instincts is weaved throughout the movie and connects all the characters. There is an instance in which Ali shakes his son, accidentally bumping his son’s head on a couch, and another in which Stéphanie spontaneously calls up Ali some time after her accident. These actions occur on impulses that even Ali and Stéphanie themselves can’t put to words.
Although one might assume the relationship that develops between Ali and Stéphanie to be awkward or loveless, this couldn’t be further than the truth. It appears that each has what the other lacks. Ali’s becomes surprisingly tender and sweet with her, while Stéphanie provides him with a sense of something permanent in his life. Both have been broken down by life, yet somehow they find that thing they have been missing in each other. By no means are they perfect for one another. Their relationship is seriously flawed, as most relationships are; if this movie can be called anything, it’s realistic.
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts do an amazing job portraying their characters’ subtle fragility. Emotions here don’t become apparent through words. One must look for a quick glance or listen for the quite-not-there sigh, peeling back the layers of the film to reveal the intentions driving these protagonists. It would be an easy mistake for the actors to take these characters to the extreme and in the process ruin them. However in Schoenaerts’s capable hands, Ali’s brutish character becomes shows such a tenderness that it makes your heart ache, and Cotillard manages to perfectly walk the line between strength and vulnerability in her portrayal of Stéphanie.
The special effects used to amputate the latter’s legs are astounding (trust me, you won’t be able to make out a difference) and, like everything else in this movie, make Cotillard’s movements and interactions seem natural. The way in which they are utilized show how CGI can be employed for so much more than flashy explosions and intricate monsters, as is so popular in action movies and thrillers.
You might recognize Jacques Audiard, the writer and director of Rust and Bone, from the 2009 prison film A Prophet, which was met with universal acclaim, culminating in a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Audiard again puts his multifaceted skill set to good use in this film. None of Antibes’ sunny charm comes through in the film. Instead, Audiard chooses to focus on the grittiness of the city: the dirty corners, the dilapidated houses — what a lower-class citizen of the town might notice. Additionally, his use of juxtaposition and lighting contrast prove that he is a capable creative force. In one instance, he captures Ali and Stéphanie’s shadows as one is walking upright and the other is rolling a wheelchair. The black-and-white light that falls on them paints the image in an even starker manner.
Rust and Bone serves you a slice of life. It is a movie stripped to its core to reveal what it means to be human. What it means to let go of fear and move on from the past. What we are left with is only the most central elements of ourselves, our rust and bone.
Original Author: Eleni Konstantopoulos