Director Jacques Audiard’s last film was the brilliant, gritty “A Prophet,” an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film. His style was stark, moody and unflinching. He seemed to be preoccupied with studying how small moments make us who we are, and how we discover strength as vulnerable beings.
Audiard brings some of those same mentalities to “Rust and Bone.” It’s an absorbing drama, a character study of two very different people drawn together when tragedy strikes. It’s emotional and full of beautiful moments, visual flair and life messages.
The story starts with Ali (a brutish Matthias Schoenaerts), a homeless man who has just been charged with caring for his young son, Sam. They have left the north of France to move in with Ali’s sister — whom he hasn’t seen in five years — in Antibes. Their reunion is awkward, and clearly he is an imposition but has nowhere else to go.
Ali looks for work while also trying to care for Sam. He eventually finds work as a bouncer at a nightclub.
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That’s where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”), after he saves her from a scuffle in the bar. She gets hurt, her face bleeding, so Ali drives her home. Once there, he asks for ice for his swollen fists. Once inside her apartment, he sees pictures of Stephanie at a water park with orca whales. She’s a trainer; he is surprised.
Then her boyfriend comes home, and Stephanie asks Ali to leave. He does, but leaves his phone number in case she needs help.
Later, everyone’s wounds healed, we see Stephanie and her crew at the water park. They are performing a show, but then tragedy strikes. An accident severely injures her.
When she wakes up in the hospital, she discovers she has lost her legs. A long, difficult recuperation begins.
One day, she comes across Ali’s number. She calls it, and he comes to visit.
From there, the relationship grows. They are friends, absolutely, and he helps lift her out of her depression. But then they begin to have sex, which further complicates matters. She then starts to fall for him.
A subplot involves Ali getting into underground street boxing to make money, and Stephanie begins to help him as his manager.
The juxtaposition of Ali’s strength versus Stephanie’s weakness is interesting, and becomes a focus of the story. Ali refuses to treat Stephanie as an invalid; she refuses to let him treat her like he treats other women — as throwaways. For he is really irresponsible and self-centered. She is really vulnerable and needy.
They are both ultimately flawed, but Audiard lets us see them grapple with trying to understand how life has put them where they are. “Rust” doesn’t have the profound emotional impact of “Prophet,” though it is captivating and ultimately uplifting. The story wanders just a bit, but we never lose interest because of the radiating chemistry between the leads.
As Stephanie, Cotillard is brilliant. It’s not a pretty role, but Cotillard wholeheartedly embraces it, going without makeup almost for the whole film. The special effects showing Stephanie with no legs look astonishingly real.
Schoenaerts also completely embodies his role. He makes Ali boyish but brooding, a bulky hothead who learns to be gentle by exposing his own vulnerabilities.
“Rust and Bone” is a look at how we gain strength in the face of adversity. But it’s mostly about how we need each other to do it.