Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a beautifully shot film, filled with unexpected turns, raw scenes of bloody violence and emotion, and contains some of the best performances of the year. Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection of the same name, the film focuses on aimless sometimes-professional fighter Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his adorable five-year-old son Sam (the gifted Armand Verdure in his film début), who are in somewhat dire straits. Ali has just recently taken responsibility for the boy from his mother (who is never seen) and feeds him from other people’s garbage that he finds on a train they take en route to live with his sister Louise (Céline Sallette). When working as a bouncer at a club one evening, Ali intervenes in a scuffle involving the beautiful Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), who he eventually drives home. She lives with her boyfriend, but Ali still leaves his number in case she ever needs him.

As it turns out, she does. Stéphanie is an orca trainer at Marineland and an accident causes her to wake up in a hospital with her two legs amputated. Depressed and alone, she calls Ali on a whim, and the two become deeply intertwined as they suffer through their personal demons and give each other a certain greater purpose. Ali feeds off the violent energy of his bloody, bareknuckle fights, while Stéphanie craves the charge of working with the dangerous orcas, but they are able to satiate certain needs through each other’s company.

The performances in Rust and Bone are virtually peerless in 2012, mostly notably, from Cotillard, who is already getting Oscar buzz. While all of her scenes are staggering in their emotional scope, one standout comes when she wakes up in the hospital. She is alone is a stark room and begins to prop herself up in bed, only to realize that the legs that allowed her to swim with the orcas, as well as to attract male attention, are gone. Her friend finds her on the floor, convulsing with sobs. Her anguish is raw and very believable – it would be easy for it to go into cheesy territory, given the subject matter, but Cotillard creates a character who is grounded in reality — dealing with a drastic life change after being hyper-concerned with her physical appearance and the attention that it spurned from others.

Cotillard’s performance is also a physical feat, as she effectively does portray someone who has lost her legs (aided by the magic of CGI). As demonstrated with her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, Cotillard is no stranger to total physical surrender, but simply the subtlety of how her Stéphanie struggles with her prosthetic legs, for instance, is astounding.

Schoenaerts is a great counterpoint to Cotillard. His character is a terrible father – he inadvertently throws his son’s head against a table, for one example – but he also injects a certain likeability into this otherwise reprehensible presence that makes us nearly root for him to succeed.  While Ali treats his son and others quite insensitively, he exudes great tenderness and understanding for Stéphanie post-accident. In one scene, he coaxes her to swim again – at a crowded beach – knowing it would strike a chord. Schoenaerts’ Ali is a brute who is unaware of his physical strength, but who is also unaware of the gentle core that he possesses, and Shoenaerts captures that difficult complexity.

With the films The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet under his belt, Audiard solidifies his ability in this film to create a delicate dance of harsh violence and a profound emotional core. Ali and his opponents get pounded in fights, Stéphanie gets punched in the nose in the beginning of the film and eventually loses her legs, Ali frequently physically mistreats his son – sweat and blood almost drip from the screen.

And yet, it’s not the gore that makes the movie difficult to watch, but the scenes of intense, stirring emotion between characters who you care deeply about.

The film is filled with scenes of sexuality too — a rarity with disabled film characters that is handled with grace and realism. The sex scenes are effectively sexy – and are empowering, especially for Stéphanie.

A lot of chatter has been going around about Audiard’s usage of Katy Perry’s “Firework” during the orca accident scene. Well, it’s almost a perfect choice – tacky theme parks like Marineland love playing sugary power pop – and it provides an ironic backdrop to a horrific moment (which also happens to be a very tasteful shot).  The song is later used extradiegetically, which is… significantly less effective.

While very strong, the film does have some issues. Without spoilers, the ending is not wholly satisfying and does not fully uphold the film’s overall quality. Nevertheless, the film is certainly something to seek out, not just for Cotillard’s eventual award nominations, but for Audiard’s stellar filmmaking and ability to put his audience – as well as his characters – through the emotional wringer.

The Upside:  The film offers a refreshingly original plot and characters and features Marion Cotillard in – hands down – one of this year’s best performances.

The Downside: Without spoilers, the denouement is fine, but does not uphold the overall quality of the rest of the film.

On the Side: Author Craig Davidson is such a “method” author that when writing his novel “The Fighter,” also about boxing, he went on a 16-week steroid cycle and even fought in a match (he was defeated).

Grade: A-


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