Jacques Audiard follows up his fantastic 2009 feature A Prophet in exemplary fashion with Rust & Bone, a brutal drama that teeters on the edge of success and failure throughout, but his ability to know just the right moment to pull it back and when to go for the gut results in a stand out movie.
It’s a raw and animalistic feature that changes its vantage point continually. Be it the confused eyes of a young child, the fallen damsel or the brutish thug. There’s power, pain, love, despair and confusion within these characters and each trait serves as a tie that binds, bringing everything together.
Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection “Rust and Bone,” Audiard, in a director’s statement, as much as says Davidson’s stories served as a tonal gateway to what ultimately became the screenplay as the two stories bear little resemblance.
To that point, there is no easy way to breakdown Rust & Bone into a simple synopsis. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the film’s narrative constant and when we first meet him he’s homeless with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure), headed to Antibes where they will ultimately stay with the sister Ali hasn’t seen for five years and her husband.
On the other side of the story we meet Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at Marineland who loses her legs in a tragic accident that has left her in a downward spiral.
Through a series of events Ali and Stephanie are brought together, two lost souls for different reasons with the third wayward piece to this triangle being Ali’s son, a victim of circumstance who has come to refer to Ali by his first name rather than “papa”.
However, don’t let the innocence or seemingly pedestrian nature of the melodrama I’ve just described fool you. This is a dark tale with corners most of us don’t dare venture. Ali soon finds himself installing illegal surveillance cameras as a side job when he isn’t getting his knuckles bloody in “anything goes” bare-knuckle boxing matches; matches Stephanie soon takes a surprising interest and through this connection becomes almost a different person or, perhaps, the person she was meant to be.
This brings me to the film’s exemplary achievement… the performances. Along with the visual storytelling of Audiard and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine — who shot both Audiard’s previous gems A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped — the kudos here go to Schoenaerts and Cotillard who simply radiate off the screen, be it in times of passion, rage, comfort or despair.
To begin, Schoenaerts first wowed me in last year’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee Bullhead and here he musters much of the same brute force, animal-out-of-control persona, but there is a bit more of a human side to Ali than there was to his Bullhead counterpart. His personal journey is really the heart and soul of the feature, but it’s the connection he finds with Stephanie that allows that heart to show. His cracks are constantly on display, but Ali is a guy that seems destined for destruction before any kind of repair can take place.
Stephanie is a character I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with. Our first impression is of a woman in love with her job, but not with the man shes living with, but only the love of her profession remains once the accident happens and her world begins to crumble, causing her to retreat inside herself. What’s even more interesting is the way she reacts to Ali, particularly when she watches him fight and the awe that comes across her face. What does she find so appealing? Does it have something to do with her unexplained past?
Cotillard’s performance in this film is one scene after another of sheer perfection to the point she turns Katy Perry’s “Firework” into an emotional epiphany, something no one would ever think possible and I statement I’ll let the film explain for itself. And the effect she has on Ali, and her on him, is a thing of beauty to watch.
To the point of the film’s music, Alexandre Desplat’s score combined with Audiard’s song choices provide a perfect balance of energy and restraint, again, knowing when to ramp it up and when to dial it back.
A lot of bad things happen in this film and despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time it feels like it is a constant barrage of bad-gets-worse with brief moments of reprieve in-between all the way up until the final ten minutes where it seemed things had finally gotten away from Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain. Yet, the correct decision was made, though it almost felt like things were summed up too quickly as I sat in my seat wanting more.
I want to know more of Stephanie’s story, the story behind Sam’s mother and, of course, where their lives go from here. Audiard left me wanting just as much more with A Prophet and in my opinion it’s the sign of a true artist.
As the film came to a close and the credits played over white I couldn’t help but feel I had once again seen a true master at work and a pair of actors that will be entertaining us for years to come.