Rust and Bone is the latest film from Jacques Audiard, following on from critically acclaimed works A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips. So there are some heavy expectations weighting on Rust and Bone. However, the early critical response was good and the film competed for the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Unfortunately for Audiard, he has the bad habit of releasing his films in the same year as Michael Haneke, and Rust and Bone lost out to Amour, as A Prophet did to The White Ribbon in 2009.
Rust and Bone is based on a short story collection by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson. It opens with Ali and his young son Sam arriving in the south of France in search of work and somewhere to live. They are forced to thumb lifts and scrounge food on the way, and end up at the home of Ali’s sister, who gives them a place to stay and respite from their hardships. Audiard’s film are all about people on the rough edges of life and the opening sequence is shot in an archetypal social realist style, reminiscent of the work of the Dardennes brothers, for example The Kid with a Bike. This is heightened by the minimal back story provided to the characters, and the fact that the male lead is played by a Belgian actor (Matthias Schoenaerts).
Ali’s physical strength and interest in kickboxing (the title refers to the taste you get in your mouth when you’ve been punched there, hard) lands him a job as a nightclub bouncer where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). He breaks up a fight and helps her home, leaving his number in case she needs him.
She doesn’t call for a few months, and when she does, some significant changes have taken place in her life. Formerly delighting in teasing men with her body, she has lost her legs in a killer whale attack (she worked at a sea life centre) and is in the throes of depression and struggling to adjust to her new circumstances. Incidentally, it’s hard to type the sentence ˜lost her legs in a killer whale attack’ without feeling that it is somehow a comedic or absurd event, but in the film itself, it’s handled well and doesn’t feel out of place in a serious dramatic narrative. It actually fits, as Steph loves water and her return to life begins when Ali takes her swimming in the sea.
The film explores Ali and Steph’s relationship, as they morph from friends, to friends with benefits, to the possibility of something further, while tracking sub-plots around Ali’s sister, his kickboxing and his work, as the exploitation of workers is examined, but the film is not restricted in its visual language by the social realist elements. Audiard experiments with cinematography and the framing of shots in interesting ways. He’s also not afraid of big, emotional scenes rather than keeping things low-key and the varied soundtrack is a key feature of this approach (if there’s another film that plays Katie Perry’s Firework at a major emotional scene I’m not aware of “ it somehow works though).
Rust and Bone does have its problems “ there are perhaps too many side plots that detract from the main story, and some of the characters’ behaviour in the final act is difficult to interpret given what has taken place before. But while Rust and Bone can’t quite stand alongside A Prophet, it is a film with a powerful, moving story and brilliant performance from Marion Cotillard, who convinces completely, both physically and mentally. The type of story told (which is quite different to Audiard’s previous) and the style it is told in also suggests a director that is keen to mix things up, not rest on his laurels and keep experimenting in search of something great “ and that’s surely something to applaud.