Marion Cotillard excels in this French drama
On the surface Rust and Bone is a less frivolous, lower-key approach to the same plot we recently saw in Untouchable: the friendship that emerges between a settled, comfortably well off person who is suddenly struck down with a severe disability, and a drifter on the fringes of society who shows them that life can go on. But where Untouchable was unafraid to tug at the heartstrings and stay largely up tempo, Rust and Bone takes a different tack. Its measured, thoughtful pacing and carefully rounded characters make this much the more powerful of the two, even if there is little you won’t have seen before.
Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer at an animal park, and in an apparently loveless domestic relationship. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is an unwilling and impatient single parent, headed to his sister’s home to try and make a fresh start. The two briefly meet at a nightclub, before a freak accident at the park results in a horrific injury to Stéphanie. She is initially unable to come to terms with her new life, but, taking a chance, she calls Ali out of the blue and they strike up a friendship. A dose of his aggressive approach to life begins to rub off on her, while she in turn gives Ali something that others have not in the past: tolerance, especially of his predilection for prize fighting.
Their relationship deepens almost imperceptibly as they get to know one another and help each other out. At first they seem appallingly matched: Ali’s vigorous appetite for casual sex with other women certainly doesn’t make things easy. But we see their hardened stances to life – their unwillingness to compromise – soften as mutual respect slowly breaks down barriers, evolving into affection. This of course leads to its own set of problems, as both Stéphanie and Ali have to readjust their lives and expectations.
To call this a human drama seems absurdly redundant. But the way director Jacques Audiard (working from a screenplay co-written with Thomas Bidegain, based on a story by Craig Davidson) handles this unexpected relationship and tentative romance is nicely understated. In fact, one almost hesitates to call it a romance, so unpredictable and unforced is it; the story might have gone in a dozen different directions and felt equally credible. It has the occasional splash of Ken Loach in its portrayal of two people pushed outside of mainstream society and finding a way to survive.
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts are both excellent. Cotillard has something of Bette Davis about her; those eyes always seem to suggest hidden depths of sadness to her characters. The despair she feels following the accident followed by her slow but gradual recovery, both physical and emotional, are movingly conveyed. Schoenaerts is equally strong as the shifty Ali, who on the outside seems a most unlikely recovery aid, being less reliable than a Microsoft operating system installed by Del Boy; a frightening character in some ways, but oddly admirable in others. Also worth singling out are Cotillard and the special effects teams, so convincing is Stéphanie’s onscreen disability.
Having thus far strenuously avoided any sort of melodrama, the film’s climax chooses to embrace it in order to bring matters to a head. One of the character’s defences finally thaws, and the fragile connection between Stéphanie and Ali is booted up the backside, which jars slightly with the hesitant nature of the story up to that point. Perhaps this is why the film doesn’t linger as long in the memory as you might expect. Even so, Rust and Bone is a captivating and compelling drama which deserves all the critical attention it has received.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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