Cotillard Dominates Stirring if Uneven Rust and Bone
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has come to the coastal city of Antibes in the south of France with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) without a cent to his name and barely any belongings. His sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a cashier at a local grocery store, takes the pair in, helping him get a job as a security guard at a popular nightclub while making sure his son gets enrolled at the neighborhood elementary school.
Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone
© Sony Pictures Classics
On his first night Ali breaks up a fight, maybe saving the mysterious Stéphanie’s (Marion Cotillard) life, going so far as to make sure she gets home safely giving her his phone number in case she needs his help again. A celebrated Orca trainer at Marineland, the lithe and athletic beauty ends up the victim of a tragic accident, losing both her legs when a stunt goes horrifically awry. Weeks after surgery and struggling to deal with her lengthy recovery, on something of a whim Stéphanie calls Ali, an unusual friendship blossoming as a result.
Based on a story by Craig Davidson, director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard follows up his Oscar-nominated gem A Prophet with the mesmerizing and complex drama Rust and Bone. Visually stimulating, dramatically invigorating, the movie fearlessly refuses to travel down expected roads, showcasing a friendship-slash-romance of opposites that’s as bracing as it is intimate. The way Ali and Stéphanie connect, how they relate to one another, the way she breaks down his selfish façade and he in turn gives her a reason to fight back against her unforeseen disability, all of it comes together in a way I found dynamically startling.
In the same instance, there is a definite storytelling imbalance to this scenario I couldn’t help but take note of. Stéphanie’s story, her journey, the fight she engages in, is something extraordinary, and Cotillard inhabits her to perfection. She makes no wrong turns, never hits a false note, mining depths of emotions and reaching stratospheric heights that blew me away. The Academy Award-winning actress takes her game to a whole new level, and as 2012 goes this is easily one of the finest performances I’ve seen this year.
But she’s not the focal point of the movie, Bullhead scene-stealer Schoenaerts is, Ali’s journey the one we follow all the way until the end. How he deals with Anna. The way he goes about his job. His slow waltz into the world of unlicensed street fighting which will ultimately segue into the legitimate realm of European Mixed Martial Arts. All of it juxtaposed with his selfish sexual desires, respect and admiration of Stéphanie – he treats her as an equal no matter the situation – and his undeniable love for his son, Sam, making Ali a complex enigma difficult to get a complete handle on.
Fine. Good. All of this is great. It makes the story different than you expect it to be and sends it down unforeseen paths that are emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Problem is, Cotillard dominates the proceedings to such an extent, her story so viscerally intoxicating, that she overwhelms just about everything else. As good as Schoenaerts is, and he is wonderful, as great as many of the scenes involving him are, the movie cannot help but stall out whenever Stéphanie is not around. I couldn’t help but notice it, and as well made as the movie is and as confidently as Audiard directs this is an issue I had minor trouble getting past.
I do not want to make it sound like the movie isn’t worthwhile because of this imbalance. It is, amazingly so, and much of the core story involving Ali and Stéphanie speaks with a beautiful eloquence that nearly broke my heart. There is a sequence, somewhat early on, where our kickboxing security guard takes his new friend to the beach, using all sorts of subterfuge to convince her to return to the ocean for the first time since her accident. This scene, this crystalline series of events, brought subtle tears to my eyes, and in an instant it gives their blossoming relationship a weighty majesty it never would have had otherwise.
I love how Audiard isn’t afraid to mix light and dark, allow pain to resonate, the way he paints so profoundly within the grey areas. At the same time, unlike A Prophet or The Beat My Heart Skipped, there are contrivances and coincidences within this story that aren’t exactly authentic. Some of the twists the narrative takes, admittedly presented with electrifying exactitude, almost seem like one step too far, and while everything is connected and the script does a grand job foreshadowing these sidesteps some of them still couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit contrived.
Yet Cotillard is magnetic while Schoenaerts more or less holds his own. Audiard has constructed a story of weight and power, one that connects on the very first frame and doesn’t let go until the screen fades to black. Structurally, the movie does feel out of balance, the secondary character the more fascinating while the primary’s story is the one containing the majority of the plot holes. But on the whole Rust and Bone works, it enlivens the spirit and stirs the soul just as it was designed to, and even with more than a handful of misgivings this is one dramatic whirlwind I’d happily experience again in the proverbial heartbeat.
Film Rating: êêê (out of 4)