There are several things that attracted me to “Rust and Bone” but nothing more than seeing Marion Cotillard take on another challenging role. To me, Cotillard is one of the best female actresses working today and she has never shied away from a difficult or demanding performance. That’s certainly the case in “Rust and Bone”, a French language picture from director Jacques Audiard. Audiard’s last directed film was 2009’s “A Prophet” so I expected this to be a bit gritty. But in the end it was his grittiness and edginess that kept me from absolutely loving this movie.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I do like “Rust and Bone”. There’s such a harsh reality to Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain’s script and the incredibly committed performances are essential to bringing us into the fragile and stained worlds of Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Cotillard). But as in real life, there are some things I don’t need to see over and over again and I felt Audiard’s desire to be edgy sometimes took away from the much better story at the heart of “Rust and Bone”.
The story revolves around two struggling people whose lives cross paths. We first see Alain as a single father with no money or home. He and his son Sam (Armand Verdure) end up crashing at his sisters house in a poor part of Antibes, France. He moves from one low-paying job to another while still holding out hope of reviving his kickboxing career. While working as a bouncer at a nightclub he has a brief encounter with Stéphanie. She works with killer whales at a Sea World type tourist park. Later during a performance there is a terrible accident which leaves Stéphanie as a double amputee. With her lower legs gone, she sinks into a world of deep depression. She reconnects with Alain and the two begin a peculiar relationship centered around two different sets of needs.
“Rust and Bone” rarely offers the audience an opportunity to smile. It deals with tough issues and never adds an ounce of sugarcoating or melodrama. When it uses this approach to advance the plot the film is very effective. And that’s not to say the movie lacks heart. There are a few scenes that do lift your spirits and they drive you to root for these characters and their individual transformations. You find your self invested in Alain and Stéphanie even if you don’t particularly like them all the time. This is in large part due to the performances from Cotillard and Schoenaerts. There isn’t one bit of insincerity in these performances and you’ll never doubt them for a second. Cotillard continues to amaze me with her subtlety and ability to express genuine emotion through her expressions. Here she gives an intense yet grounded performance. The only distraction from the actor’s work comes from the movie’s persistent focus on the edgier part of their relationship. For me, Audiard goes to the proverbial well one too many times.
I also have to mention the insanely good CGI work and visual trickery used to make Cotillard look as if she has no legs. If you weren’t familiar with the actress you would never know otherwise. It’s that convincing. Of course I don’t have to explain how essential that is to making the story work. Much of the film deals with her struggling and dealing with her handicap and I was amazed at how visually impressive it looked.
“Rust and Bone” could be called an unconventional love story but that’s cutting it short. There’s so much more going on in this film and most of it works great. There’s some fantastic technique at work behind the camera and the performances are brilliant. But my overall experience with the film was brought down a bit by some pointless content that wasn’t just distracting but that caused things to drag a bit. A tighter script and a broader focus could have made this good film even better. Nevertheless there is some solid storytelling here and the raw emotion that it leaves you with says a lot about the movie.