Arts & Events

Film Review: Rust and Bone: A Love Story with Blood and Bruises

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday December 18, 2012 - 11:37:00 AM
Schoenaerts and Cotillard
Schoenaerts and Cotillard
Mayhem Rules in Rust and Bone
Mayhem Rules in Rust and Bone

Opens December 21 at the Embarcadero and Sundance Kabuki Theatres in San Francisco

Opens January 11 at Berkeley's Shattuck Theatre

Director Jacque Audiard's uncompromising new film, Rust and Bone, has a unique look and feel. The film begins with mesmerizing images of faces and forms flashing and fading in a daze of light and shadow — like tossed playing cards briefly glimpsed as they tumble past your eyes. The effect creates a sense of uncertainty that suggests a disquieting moral: "There are tides in life that draw us in unknowable directions. We are not in control of our fortunes. We can only influence — and sometimes rise above — the rubble of life's turbulence but we are never free and independent." 

Audiard has described his cinematography as "expressionist," explaining that he wanted "the power of stark, brutal, clashing images in order to further the melodrama." He succeeds. 

Rust and Bone was inspired by a roughhouse collection of short stories by American writer Craig Davidson. Audiard, a great fan of Davidson's writing, kept the grit and danger of the original tales but transformed two of Davidson's stories into a new mash-up that amazed even the author. Audiard also added something that was lacking in Davidson's original stories — a love interest. 

Co-stars Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts strip themselves bare (figuratively and literally). When it comes to Oscar nominations Cotillard and Schoenaerts both deserve a nod but Cotillard (who dazzled screengoers with her 2007 breakout role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose) has a leg up on the competition. (Or maybe that should be two legs off.) 

In the most accomplished example of film manipulation since Gary Sinese lost his limbs in Forest Gump, Cotillard spends most of her screen time with her legs missing from the knees down. (It's astonishing to watch as Cotillard drags herself across a floor, the stumps of her severed legs moving in and out of focus. Or watching as she swims through the ocean with her amputated limbs visible through the chop and wobble of the waves.) 

When Stéphanie (Cotillard) first encounters Ali (Schoenaerts), it is anything but the typical Hollywood "meet cute." Their encounter occurs in a crowded dance club where Stéphanie has been knocked to the floor with a bloody nose. Ali, one of the club bouncers, comes to her aid. Before parting, he hands her his phone number. (No big thing: Ali is not interested in attachments, only casual sex. He picks up women with the same sense of entitlement that he grabs drinks from his sister's refrigerator.) 

We discover that, when Stéphanie's not pushing the envelope in the club scene, she can be found at a French Marineworld where she sends killer whales leaping out of the water with a self-confident flick of her wrist. One day, however, something goes terribly wrong and it happens just the way it would happen in real life — you don't see it coming and you don't exactly see what hit you. There's just something sudden, unexpected and overwhelming. Followed by stunned silence and an unconscious body bleeding underwater. 

Stéphanie awakens to a shattered world. Confined to a wheelchair, she spirals into isolation, self-loathing and despair. When she reaches out to Ali, he literally places her burdens on his powerful shoulders. He carries her to a nearby beach where, buoyed by the waves, she reclaims her physical independence by swimming away from the shore (turning her back on the world of the walking). Feeding off Ali's physical strength, Stéphanie regains the courage to plunge back into life. Stéphanie's recovery will eventually lead to a wonderful moment where she returns to the orca tank, stands alone in silhouette before the a large transparent wall, and taps her hand on the glass. What happens next is everything you would hope for. It's pure magic. 

Ali is an exasperating character (and the fact that he is so borderline unlikeable is a credit to Schoenaerts' skill as an actor). He is a self-absorbed Alpha-male, shoving his way through life on a diet of alcohol and testosterone. When he's not boxing, jogging or shagging the next available strumpet, he's sitting in front of a TV analyzing kickboxing videos. 

Ali is struggling financially. He's on the move and he's been forced to crash at his sister's house. Adding to his burdens is Sam, his young son, who needs more attention than his father is willing to grant him. When Ali's sister tells him to "watch Sam" while she's gone, you just know Ali's going to ignore the boy and trouble will follow. 

Despite the odds, Ali and Stéphanie begin to bond (good news for fans of amputee sex fantasies). As Ali's career as a street-fighter begins to gain traction, Stéphanie (now nick-named "Robocop" and swaggering about on prosthetic metallic legs) becomes a fight organizer at these orgiastic, back-ally battles where muscled men strip to their waists and pummel each other until blood and money begin to flow. 

Stéphanie's motherly concern for little Sam transfers to Ali who begins to drop his emotional armor and starts behaving like a parent. But one day on a frozen lake, a moment's inattention (which is guaranteed to send a shiver of apprehension down a viewer's spine) will lead to a parent's worst nightmare. 

Throughout the film, people bleed and people weep but, at the end, these people come to need each other and their bond is rewarded (in a closing scene that is so pat, it could almost pass as a dream sequence). Rust and Bone concludes with an indelible bit of information about the human body: While most broken bones will heal and often become stronger, the 27 bones in the human fist are fragile — once they've been fractured, they will carry the memory of that pain forever.