RUST AND BONE. Starring Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Corinne Masiero, and Armand Verdure. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Rated MA 15+ (Strong sex scenes, violence and nudity). 122 min.
This French, subtitled film is based loosely on short stories drawn from the collection of the same name by Craig Davidson. It won best film at the 2012, BFI London Film Festival. The term “bone” in the film’s title is an oblique reference to the 27 bones in a boxer’s hand. This is an extraordinary film in almost every sense of the word, and one which is provocative, moving, and very confronting.
A psychologically insecure kick-boxer, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), arrives in southern France as a homeless father with his young son, Sam (Armand Verdure), looking for work. He comes to live with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), who has emotional problems. Ali finds employment as a bouncer in a night club, and is attracted to Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who works at a nearby Marine Park. Her job at the tourist park is to train, killer Orca whales.
Stephanie is mauled tragically by one of the whales, and wakes up in hospital to find that her legs have been amputated. Near to suicide, she phones Ali, after he has left her his telephone number to which she has never responded. With Stephanie now in a wheel chair, Ali visits her and takes her to the beach where they swim and spend time together. As the relationship between them deepens, the attraction becomes sexual, and the near-death of Ali’s son brings him to the realisation that he genuinely loves Stephanie. Ali and Stephanie have previously had an understanding about Ali’s need for other women, but after Ali declares his love for her, Stephanie returns to him and joins forces with Sam to help Ali in his boxing career.
A description of the plot in these terms sounds ordinary and mundane, but this film is far from it. The movie is a tour-de-force of courageous direction and acting. Cotillard is outstanding as the tragic victim, who falls in love with a brusque and seemingly unfeeling bare-knuckle boxer, who has no idea of how to care for others, even his son. Ali is totally unfazed by Stephanie’s disability, but he is the sort of person, who feeds his son half-eaten sandwiches taken from other people, and picks up a woman on a dance floor while Stephanie, unable to dance, is watching.
After the accident, Stephanie wonders whether she can ever experience desire again, so Ali offers to sleep with her “to see if it still works”, so that she can find out. Sex between Stephanie and Ali is first entirely “OP” (Operational, as Ali describes it), but the developing love between a crippled woman and an emotionally complex man soars with the film’s wonderful treatment of their feelings toward each other.
Ironically, it is Ali’s brutish qualities that attract Stephanie to him. Together, they discover a new purpose in life, and Cotillard and Schoenaerts act out the drama of two damaged people, attracted to each other, with intensity and absolute naturalness. Cotillard’s fierce acting is extraordinary. There are many plot contrivances in this film, but Cotillard’s performance is utterly convincing, and totally without vanity.
The cinematography in the movie is excellent, as is its quick editing, and lighting. The sequence where the killer whale misreads its trainer’s cues and attacks Stephanie is outstanding. Just as impressive is Cotillard’s howl of anguish as she realises she is legless, as also the scenes of the killer whale putting its nose against the glass to greet her, when Stephanie visits it again after her accident, and the scenes of Sam’s body floating under ice while Ali tries desperately to rescue him.
Jacques Audiard, the film’s Director, knows the working class well, and he shows us scenes of economic hardship and family breakdown in France, but social problems are not his main concern. This is a film about two individuals rejected by Society, who find meaning in life together.
Melodrama perhaps lies somewhere in the deep recesses of this film’s hidden heart, but the film presents us with a shocking, tender, and unsettling love story that leaves one in utter admiration of the boldness of its telling.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out March 28th 2013.