What happens when a deeply depressed, intelligent woman, is drawn from her despair by an insensitive would-be boxer, makes Rust and Bone one of the love stories of movie’s recent era.
Directed by Jacques Audiard, whose previous films include the gritty jail film, The Prophet (2009), and are generally male dominated, Rust and Bone provides an insight into class, depression, romance and feelings that leaves the viewer somewhat stunned. Although the softened ending lands you on a feather bed compared to the sleeping really rough of the previous two hours, you are left with an inner churning of what has gone before.
This time, Audiard has developed a wonderful female character played by Marion Cotillard, looking strikingly different from her gamine-like previous major roles in Piaf and Midnight In Paris. In Rust and Bone she is a whale trainer whose life is turned completely around when her seaquarium act goes horribly wrong. She is rescued in part by Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a bouncer and security guard, who appears insensitive to human emotions.
Ali is in the south of France after leaving the country’s north. He has rescued his son from a drug addict wife/mother and has been taken in by his sister and her husband, a working class couple doing their best in trying times.
A chance meeting at a nightclub leads to a later reunion brought on by the much-changed circumstances of Stephanie (Cotillard) and this brings forward what for many would be one of the most intriguing aspects of Rust and Bone’s production, the transformation of Cotillard into an amputee.
Scenes of her being carried on Ali’s back into the sea; swimming away from the camera and having intimate relations with her friend, leave the viewer guessing as to how it was done.
Sex becomes a crucial circuit breaker in Rust and Bone with Ali treating it as a function requiring no feeling except for his release and the satisfaction of his partner. His romantic connection with Stephanie means different things to each – she regards it as the step towards a relationship; he a means of getting off and pleasuring a woman.
Stephanie’s job, training huge mammals to do what she commands for their eventual benefit (feeding) has to be applied to Ali, a being of far less emotion than the norm. This is no more evident than his choice of career – Fight Club-style boxing for money earned from gambling on the result. Ali is able to absorb enormous pain and eventually triumph in his bouts. We wonder if it is because of his undoubted strength or whether the man just has no feelings – physical or emotional.
However, Ali is good for Stephanie. He refuses to look at her as a victim and this gives her the strength to realise she is still Stephanie, a powerful woman with plenty to offer the world, men and her friends.
Ali’s relationship with his young son, Sam (Armand Verdure), is strained because of his emotional short fallings and he is fortunate to have the support of his sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), a downtrodden survivor of life in the slow lane. However, when he sours this position, he flees leaving the way open for another eventual reunion that goes horribly askew for at least a minute of screen time.
The epiphany of Ali leads to Stephanie coming back into his life and the eventual soft-land ending.
All this is backed by a brilliant soundtrack mixing pop like Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen and the B-52s with an orchestral score.
Rust and Bone is powerful and tough. It is also a love story of rare grit.
FOOTNOTE: Rust and Bone refers to the taste a boxer feels in the mouth after absorbing a hard punch. I admit to thinking it related to the nexus of the two main characters (rust the eventual weakness in her fake legs; bone the eventual vulnerable part of his boxer’s body) before reading this explanation in another’s review.