French director Jacques Audiard came to international prominence with his film A Beat That My Heart Skipped and furthered his reputation with 2009’s A Prophet, which topped many an end of year list. Both of those films shared Audiard’s customary documentary-style observation and moments of flair, with strong central performances depicting seedy and flawed existences. Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim both played characters wrapped up in the darkness of the underworld, fighting to escape, in Duris’ case, or flourish, in Rahim’s.
His sixth feature, Rust and Bone, follows in a similar vein. Based on author Craig Davidson’s short story, the film revolves around Alain’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) tumultuous relationship with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Both of these characters find themselves at the fringes of society; Alain is a no-nonsense tough guy, floating from job to job while trying to care for his young son, while Stephanie’s life as a whale trainer has been swept away by a freak accident that leaves her an amputee. Through a chance meeting, the odd couple find each other and discover solace in their existence as society’s underdogs.
Rust and Bone is not a typical romance story. There are moments of brutality, and the whole film is injected with a raw, frayed undertone. Alain, for his part, seems only able to express himself through aggression. He can only control his young son through mild threat and criticism, and with Stephanie, his love interest, he is only capable of bluntness rather than tenderness. He only really comes alive when he is reunited with his past career as a kick boxer, but this time in rural locales with illegal betting. After one swift fight in which he dismisses an opponent, he careers off into a run in order to burn up the remaining aggression in himself.
Stephanie is a much more grounded individual; a steady job as a trainer in a local water park attraction, she seems to revel in her alternate existence in the water. Like Romain Duris’ piano playing in ABTMHS or Alain’s fighting, Stephanie’s escape is the water. When she finds this life taken away from her, she struggles to adapt to everyday existence as an amputee. She is a much more sensitive, humane person than Alain, but finds his matter of fact talk comforting when she finds herself in a sensitive situation. By this point in the story, they both need each other. Will Stephanie ever be able to tame Alain though? That is the active question that Audiard leaves us with.
Like his previous films, Audiard’s latest is characterised by the towering central performances. Schoenaerts is uncompromisingly lunk headed and thuggish, but still retains a flawed humanity. His physicality is frightening, and he remains a constant source of threat. Cotillard is superb as the emotionally and physically wounded Stephanie. She has the emotional range to exhibit the hurt of isolation and need, without resorting to hysterics. With much of her Hollywood work she has seemed uncomfortable and displaced, and this film questions whether she would be much better served working in her native country.
Although there are a few nicely composed images in this film, it is strange that Audiard is often noted as a stylist. His work appears much more in line with the observational documentary style of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers (both of whom focus on marginalised characters). There are moments of flair in the choreographed fights and pop soundtrack, but overall this is a gritty, raw piece of work driven by flawed characters and their arcs.
Rust and Bone is a punchy, gutsy character drama with superb performances. The relationship between the two players is both original and touching, offbeat and uncompromising. Audiard makes the audience believe in something initially far fetched and grips us all the way to the denouement. It falls a little short of his two previous films, particularly A Prophet, perhaps because it is missing the sense of epic scale that that prison drama had. While Alain has a distinctive arc, Stephanie’s is less certain.