Rust and Bone is at heart a love story, but don’t expect slow motion montages of a happy couple cavorting in a field of daisies. It’s a grim, tough guy sort of romance with street fights substituting for candlelight dinners and lovemaking presented as just another form of physical therapy. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a thuggish former boxer who has fled Belgium with his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) for the sunnier climes of Antibes. His wife - who is never shown - has become involved with drug use and dealing, putting Sam’s welfare at great risk. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a whale trainer at Marineland, where she dons a wetsuit every day and enthralls audiences with the acrobatic exploits of these magnificent beasts. The pair meet one night at a raucous bar where Ali works as a bouncer. When he helps Stephanie out of a potentially violent situation, Ali’s sexual desire is mistaken for gallantry. This white knight’s armor may be deeply tarnished, but in the modern rough and tumble world one can’t be too choosy about guardian angels.
Director Jacques Audiard loves to deliver shocking moments - more precisely the disoriented, trippy aftermath of shocking moments - and Rust and Bone has its share. When the thin wall of respect that separates man and beast is breeched, Stephanie is left floating amid electronic debris in a fizzy wake of blood. Her rehab will be slow and excruciating, prompting a desperate call to her disheveled hero. Ali responds with a mixture of empathy and blasé practicality - in his world, mangled bodies are all too commonplace - and he and Stephanie evolve into a unique relationship that seems oddly perfect given the trajectory of their lives; something less than love but more than caregiver codependency. Rust and Bone was shot with the RED camera on digital video and the format’s relentless detail works wonders in evoking the crude nuts and bolts - sometimes literally - of Stephanie’s rehab.
Rust and Bone would have made a great 90 minute film with a tantalizingly understated ending, but Audiard adds an additional act that ties all the loose strings. A lot happens here, including a stunning scene on an icy lake that will make every parent shudder, but ultimately one could argue the movie’s final half hour adds nothing but cheap thrills. By this time, most viewers will have been sufficiently wrung out anyway.
The film’s endgame also suffers from a lack of facetime for Marion Cotillard. Rust and Bone is a shining addition to her portfolio of extraordinary performances. Like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, Marion Cotillard has morphed into one of those talents who doesn’t merely act but utterly embodies. Her ability is a true gift beyond explanation or conventional metrics and Audiard’s script gives her plenty of opportunities. There’s an amazing scene with Cotillard returning to a deserted Marineland to commune with - and presumably forgive - the Orca that injured her. Whether the scene was accomplished, or at least enhanced, through CGI is immaterial. It’s Cotillard’s scene and for a brief moment this hobbling, deeply damaged soul seems to hold the key to life’s most confounding mysteries. At its best, Rust and Bone is built on such moments; moments that ask its viewers to contemplate the big questions. The film’s only mistake was trying to answer them.