A tender yet heavily de-romanticized love story between a boxer with broken hands and an orca trainer with missing legs, “Rust and Bone” serves as an impressive if somewhat overblown exercise in contrasts, starring “Bullhead” breakout Matthias Schoenaerts and French siren Marion Cotillard as a pair whose daily fight for survival all but overwhelms the spark between them. Inspired by Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s like-titled short story collection, Jacques Audiard’s hyper-polished follow-up to “A Prophet” should enthrall its native Gaul, where it opens simultaneous with its Cannes premiere, before making a resilient run at U.S. arthouses via Sony Pictures Classics.
Inventing a fresh set of characters suggested by Davidson’s terse pulp tales, Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain continue a long tradition of French filmmakers trying their hand at the more typically American game of gritty, down-on-their-luck portraiture, in which boxers and lowlifes futilely attempt to claw their way upward while fate pushes back with all its cruel might. Schoenaerts’ Ali is one such thug, just the latest in an oeuvre full of unconventional heroes from director Audiard (whose “A Self-Made Hero” and “A Prophet” previously won prizes at Cannes).
Ali appears sympathetic at first, if only because he’s taken his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), whom his ex had enlisted to smuggle drugs, and moved in with his working-class sister (Celine Sallette) in Antibes. Ali picks up odd jobs here and there, working as a bouncer and a security guard before getting caught up with a shady boxing promoter (Bouli Lanners) who installs illegal surveillance cameras in discount chain stores.
One night at the club, he rescues the provocatively dressed Stephanie (Cotillard) from a brawl, driving her back to the apartment she shares with her overly controlling b.f. As in “Bullhead,” Schoenaerts seems positively Neanderthal compared with the characters around him, and yet, there’s something in his animal simplicity that Stephanie responds to. After an accident at her Marineland job leaves her a double amputee, she calls Ali, and their slow, surprisingly sensitive courtship begins.
Though unabashedly melodramatic, “Rust and Bone” resists many of the pretty comforts of the genre. For starters, she has no legs; seamless vfx allow her condition to be shown so often onscreen, the shock eventually fades. And when Ali proposes sex at a certain point in their relationship, the gesture serves only to fulfill their immediate urges. Indeed, there’s something sub-human about many of their interactions, as if the impulses that drive them haven’t been vetted by the usual gauntlet of social considerations. It’s not even clear whether the couple belongs together, to the extent that the feel-good montage that caps the film very nearly betrays the rest of its worldview.
By French standards, the film is a massive undertaking, serving up a grueling yet dignified role for the country’s hottest young starlet and an appropriately bull-headed showcase for Schoenaerts (who can also speak English and will soon be an international name). Though Audiard already commands respect, the film’s cred is amplified by the involvement of the Dardenne brothers, who produced through their Les Films du Fleuve shingle.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” a few years back, “Rust and Bone” blends Dardennes-esque naturalism — handheld cameras; raw, tempestuous performances; squalidly realistic production design — with more conventional plotting and compositions. Early footage of Ali and his son Sam evoke the Belgian sibs’ “L’Enfant,” revealing character through action and interaction, while later scenes — as when a partly rehabbed Stephanie returns to the aquarium to visit the orcas — have been orchestrated for maximum poetic effect.
This hybrid of almost docu-style observation and tightly scripted storytelling will seem invisible to many, and yet, it represents the direction in which romantic pics must evolve lest increasingly jaded auds dismiss them as phony. Like the odd blend of Alexandre Desplat’s tender score with American top-40 music, the two parties in this particular couple seem so antithetical — she’s an elegant free spirit excited by dance and nature, while he seems scarcely more evolved than a gorilla — the film never quite convinces that such a pair could exist, and during certain dramatic doldrums, even Audiard doesn’t seem to know where things are headed.
Cotillard is the kind of actress whose eyes draw one into a place of deep identification, and though her character seems secondary to the dysfunctional father-son bond, this quality makes Stephanie the film’s aching soul. Schoenaerts plays things more physically, keeping auds at arm’s length while they try to guess what Ali is feeling, until the heart-wrenching moment when his blunt instincts prove the only thing that prevent fate’s already harsh tribulations from spiraling into irredeemable tragedy.