One of my biggest crimes against cinema is that I haven’t seen any of Jacques Audiard’s work. It’s a confession that I am most embarrassed about, with various friends and fellow critics often detailing the mastery of his previous films, such as The Beat My Heart Skipped and the Oscar-nominated A Prophet. Allegedly filled with great machoism and heft, Audiard’s latest, Rust and Bone (or De Rouille et d’os, in the native French), sees the auteur change tact, with a majestically acted story of romance through gritted, gnarling teeth.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Ali, a rugged, neglectful father hitchhiking his way across Belgium to Antibes with his young son Sam (Armane Vendure). Bunking up in his distressed sister’s modest home, Ali uses his background training in boxing and Thai martial arts to snap up as a bouncer at a provincial nightclub. On his first night, he meets the perspicacious Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at a local, SeaWorld-like tourist attraction. Breaking up a nightclub brawl, the bloody-nosed Stéphanie and the hulking Ali have an energised chemistry from the get-go, which they mutually decide to curtail. Soon after, disaster strikes when Stéphanie is caught in a freak accident at work, causing life-affirming physical and emotional trauma. With no-one else in her life, she calls upon Ali to console her, and together they venture on a journey of self discovery, pain and anguish.
Although I described it initially as a “romance picture”, Rust and Bone focuses on how people cope with love, without it, and learn to live with humility. Shot in deep-focus by Audiard’s regular cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, we get extreme close-ups of flesh and body-to-body contact. It’s a sexualised film, in one way, yet there’s often a distinct lack of love on show (we get the first kiss between the pair a whopping 93 minutes in to the movie!). Expressing so little affectation, Rust and Bone hinges on the effervescent chemistry and tension between Cotillard and Schoenaerts, which is so pervasive that it could be juiced, bottled and sold as a potent, French-certified aphrodisiac.
Cotillard carries the film with an arresting performance (a favourite for the year, for me). An emotionally and physically demanding role, she embodies an inner strength which topples Schoenaerts’ somatic heft. A shoo-in for an Oscar nod, her performance also reflects on the work of a committed make-up and special effects team. Although going into detail on why their work is so effective would tarnish both the narrative shocks and your own personal engagement with the film, suffice to say it’s nigh-on perfect.
Continuing to embody the same brooding stoicism he did in last year’s brilliant cattle gangster drama Bullhead, Schoenaerts is sublime as Ali. A negligent father, polyamorous lover and emotionally vacuumed bare-knuckle street fighter, it’s a physically demanding role, which he handles with great, wordless grace. If the film has any narrative issues, it’s in Audiard asking for our sympathies for Ali, who spends most of the film being a pretty terrible person, right up until the final act’s redemptive conclusion.
Following involved scoring in Moonrise Kingdom, The King’s Speech, Argo and The Tree of Life, bankable composer-of-the-moment Alexandre Desplat’s score carries a brilliantly evocative weight, mixed together with songs from Colin Stetson, Bon Iver, and Katy Perry’s “Firework”, to surprisingly good effect.
Audiard pussyfoots around melodrama territory, but drags the audience back down to the dirt with bloody fight sequences and unflinching sex scenes. Named after the taste one feels after experiencing pain, Rust and Bone is a shrewdly crafted romantic drama, projecting an image of love which is both grotesque and beautiful.