Dir: Jacques Audiard
I walked into Rust and Bone sceptical. I'd heard great things, but then I also heard great things about Jacques Audiard's last film, A Prophet, which, after months of 'it's the best film of the year' style build up, I finally saw and thought was... fine. Having heard the regard Audiard is held in, and not yet having got around to any of his other films, I decided to give him another shot with the almost equally rapturously received Rust and Bone, I probably still won't get what the fuss is about A Prophet, but I do finally get what the fuss is about Audiard, because Rust and Bone is a beautiful, bruising, beast of a film.
The film introduces us to two people. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is an itinerant fighter, recently arrived in France with his five year old son Sam in tow to stay with his Sister. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is more settled; she trains and performs with Orcas. The two meet after Ali takes Stephanie back to her home from the club he's working at as a bouncer when she's caught in a fight, but they are drawn together only after Stephanie has a terrible accident in which she loses both of her legs.
At its heart, Rust and Bone is about someone who breaks people; physically and sometimes emotionally, and someone who is broken in both senses. This isn't a Hollywood film, people aren't always likeable, and the process of being fixed is long and at best uncertain, and what Ali offers to Stephanie in terms of care comes in a way that is, in its own fashion, pretty brutal. What makes the characters – Ali in particular – palatable is that neither Audiard nor his actors ask for your sympathy for them (empathy, yes, sympathy, no). Moments like Ali losing his temper and throwing his son down, hurting him, aren't dismissed, they just don't define him. Ali, like most people, isn't one thing. He's not merely a vicious fighter or an inattentive Father, he clearly cares about people – indeed when he first begins spending time with Stephanie after her accident there's nothing in it for him in terms of money or in terms of sex, no ulterior motive.
Stephanie is a more settled and perhaps more 'normal' person when we first meet her, but her sense of self is obviously profoundly changed by her accident. There's anger and grief at what she's lost, but also a sense of something new and different in her relationship with Ali. In a more conventional (read Hollywood) film the whole film would likely be about how Ali immediately changes, and helps Stephanie on her road to recovery, with her symbolically rediscovering herself in a big climactic set piece. Audiard's film is more real than that. Stephanie does have that moment of reconnecting with the person she used to be, but it's a low key thing, with only her in the scene, and it's all the more moving for that. Ali does take care of Stephanie, in his way, but that doesn't magically make him a great person (his response when Stephanie talks about her sexual frustration is caring in its way, but also blunt almost to the point of offensiveness).
To go along with the complexity of the characters, Rust and Bone boasts two rich and impressive leading performances. Schoenaerts bristles with coiled energy, which is what makes Ali both so interesting to Stephanie and so dangerous both as a fighter and as a guy in his life outside whatever ring or strip of dirt he's fighting on that day. We see that energy unleashed for good and for bad, and sometimes how hard it is distinguishing between the two. Schoenaerts is also good at suggesting much of what Ali is feeling beneath the hardened surface, only letting it spill over in one of the film's most visceral and desperate scenes. Marion Cotillard has top billing here, but also much the smaller part, we see Stephanie largely as Ali drifts in and out of her life, whether by his volition or hers. It would be easy for Cotillard to have overplayed this character, but her distress is raw and heartbreaking, and neither she nor Audiard let Stephanie's story stray into melodrama.
The writing, acting and Audiard's artistic but never obscure direction all combine to make Rust and Bone a truly affecting experience. Audiard's most impressive quality here is the ability to smoothly shift gears from raw and visceral moments like Ali's fights to a more impressionistic tone when Stephanie is hurt, and in parts of her recovery, particularly a scene that will ensure you will never, ever, hear Katy Perry's Firework the same way again (it does for this song what Take This Waltz recently did for Video Killed the Radio Star). The music selection in general is brilliant. A personal favourite, both as a scene and a music choice, was a remix of Lykke Li's I Follow Rivers during a key club scene, as Stephanie ventures on a night out for the first time since the accident.
The only part of the film where I felt it might have taken a mis-step is in the closing ten minutes. They felt perhaps a little sentimental and a little neat as I watched them, but reflecting on it later I think that last passage of the film fits perfectly, and brings it full circle. Without giving anything away, Stephanie is immeasurably changed early in the film by a huge event, and by the end it is Ali's turn. It feels like it comes quickly, and one or two longer scenes might have helped (I'd have happily watched more of this film), but it works with the tone and the story of the two preceding hours.
This is a film I feel sure will repay repeat viewings, there is so much in the performances, so many beautiful little layers to this unconventional is it or isn't it a love story. But it's the mix of bruising realism - physical and emotional - with moments of pure cinema which make it clearly the film of the festival and the film of the year so far.