Marion Cotillard, the world-class, Oscar winning actress whose tour de force in 2006’s La Vie En Rose made her an international movie star, plays a killer whale trainer maimed in an unfortunate accident in Rust and Bone, the sophomore picture from Jacques Audiard, whose 2010 masterpiece A Prophet took Cannes’ top prize and nearly revitalized the gangster movie. This time out he has set his sights on an intimate, would-be love story between two seemingly disparate people at the ends of their respective ropes. In some corners Rust and Bone is being hailed as a great love story, but it’s really a character study of two individuals stripped of pretenses and means who have to reinvent themselves.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless Belgian immigrant who arrives with his young son (Armand Verdure) undocumented and penniless in Antibes, moving into a cramped apartment with his supermarket casher sister (Corinne Masiero) and her husband. Ruggedly handsome and towering in stature, he soon finds work as a bouncer at a local bar.
Into his orbit comes tragic beauty Stephanie (Cotillard), whom he rescues from a brawl with her boyfriend. Bloodied and shaken, she accepts a ride home from Ali and their chemistry is immediate. However, Stephanie is in a controlling relationship and Ali sees women as purely sexual conquests, so what to do?
Stephanie is a trainer at a Sea World-type park on the French Riviera, and things take a devastating turn when she loses her legs in a freak accident followed by a powerful scene in a hospital where Cotillard mines despair with her special brand of pathos; she really is free with her emotions, even in lesser pictures like Little White Lies. Unlike the way she is used in Hollywood blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, European directors strip her bare to essentials—in this case life and death and in between.
An unlikely relationship blooms between Ali and Stephanie as the thuggish brute, who also picks up cash in bare-knuckled street flights, steps in as Stephanie’s friend and sometimes lover, carrying her legless body into the sea and gradually bringing her back to life. Yet he’s not available for her, truly, in the way she needs—responsible and committed life partner—and this disconnect reaches a breaking point.
But instead of truly focusing on this intimate and interesting pair, the film digresses to explore the details of Ali’s troubled relationship with his son and on-the-job problems, which lead to a late picture crises, followed by a harrowing scene, simply and beautifully shot and acted on a snowy winter pond.
While Cotillard is getting the attention for Rust and Bone, it’s Schoenaerts who electrifies as an ill-equipped father and would-be boyfriend unable to fulfill either contract. The Belgian star, appearing nude and vulnerable, is handsome to a fault and a great onscreen match for Cotillard’s beauty, creating an intense and unpredictable character living on the bottom rung who can’t help himself let alone the two people who need him most.
Yet despite these thematic complexities, Rust and Bone never really takes off. It’s never boring, but it’s never as engaging as it should be, and we never get close enough to either of the characters to feel as much for them as we might have, and the film fails to explore their relationship fully. The screenplay tells us they should be together—two lost souls looking for second chances and redemption—but doesn’t make us feel it in our bones.
Rust and Bone looks great, the themes are deep and the performances unassailable, but the undernourished screenplay doesn’t connect the dots.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Jacques Audiard, written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from a story by Craig Davidson.
2 1/2 stars.