Film Review: Rust and Bone

Prospects for a drama about the relationship between a homeless fighter and legless woman seem dim indeed, but Jacques Audiard, blessed with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard and charismatic Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts, again shows he can turn seemin

It’s impossible to imagine how Rust and Bone could be successfully pitched to any U.S. distributor (the French, they are another story) were it not for the track record of writer-director Jacques Audiard. With previous works like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips and the Oscar-nominated A Prophet, he manages to turn the unlikeliest of wormy subjects, characters and milieus into cinematic silk.

Again delivering impeccable performances, Marion Cotillard (Best Actress Oscar for her Piaf incarnation in La Vie en Rose) and Matthias Schoenaerts (the sensation in Oscar-nominated surprise Bullhead), add fuel to Oscar fires and possible art-house box-office heat.

Spurning conventional (and commercial) wisdom, Audiard once more takes audiences to places, situations, and into the kinds of challenged lives that are usually box-office poison. Here, his unlikeliest of stories concerns the relationship that grows between severely handicapped Stéphanie (Cotillard), who loses both legs as a theme-park orca whale trainer/performer, and down-and-out single father/muscle man Ali (Schoenaerts). The backdrop is a resolutely unglamorous Antibes and environs, a usual Riviera glam destination that filmmakers have long exploited.

Stéphanie is first met pre-accident as a hard-partying, disco-loving performer at Marineland. She lives with a macho boyfriend, but it’s evident that matters of l’amour are not her winning suit. Meanwhile, in France’s dreary north, the beefy but sweet Ali, hitting rock-bottom, becomes homeless and, with five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure), heads to the Antibes area to crash with sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Also struggling, Anna toils as a cashier at a local supermarket and earns a few euros more by caring for a breeder’s dogs and pups.

Anna welcomes her brother and especially little Sam and gives them a roof in her garage. Ali’s good luck continues as he lands a job as a club bouncer. Stéphanie and Ali meet at the club after she is roughed up and he drives her home. He gives her his number and they part ways until after Stéphanie’s tragic accident and the extreme surgery that removes her crushed legs. Ali loses his bouncer job but lands one as a security guard and also begins training as a boxer. Stéphanie, isolated and trying to adapt to a life without use of her legs, finds Ali’s number, calls him and a friendship begins even after Ali’s awkward realization of the severity of her handicap.

Off-hours, Ali turns his fighting skills into a profitable avocation after Martial (Bouli Lanners), also with the security company, brings him into probably illegal street fights that attract bettors. Ali and Stéphanie have a go at romance and she even helps oversee the accounting at the fights. Plenty of complications ensue, including big setbacks, maybe permanent separations, and an accident with a suspenseful aftermath that may cost a life.
Again, Audiard turns so many unpromising elements into a story that is as authentic as it is emotionally rich. And he has impressive help in achieving this. The film’s visual effects amaze: No matter her situation, Stéphanie is convincingly rendered as a woman with no legs below her knees.

Audiard’s involving script never condescends and again his trump card is the terrific talent he attracts. Both Cotillard and Schoenaerts, playing roles not easily embraced, give their characters much humanity and vitality. Actors in smaller roles, especially young Verdure as Sam, are also outstanding.

And cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s lensing, often handheld, gives immediacy to all that is happening, even among such marginalized people in unexceptional places. Matching the film’s shifting moods, his palette moves from pastels, soft and muted, to bright colors and crisp images.