Disparate souls joined together - how long can that last? Stephanie, played by Marion Cotillard, is cool, but involved, carefully keeping track of what's going on around her and where she fits in the picture. Sometimes she goes to night spots and tries out a gesture here, a move there, watching to see how the men around her react. Stephanie, who lives with her annoying boyfriend and works with whales at a Sea World-style park, doesn't get obsessive about her little control games. She's just messing around, more or less.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) thinks in a fundamentally different fashion. He doesn't drink in his surroundings; he scans, looking for threats and opportunities. His reaction to relevant events is to seek the shortest, most direct possible resolution and do it quickly. If he's hungry and broke, he scavenges for discarded food. If he needs money, he steals. If he wants sexual release, he finds a willing woman for a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am session. Ali is an animal whose brutish leanings can be appealing.
French director Jacques Audiard's film Rust and Bone is an expertly shot, beautifully-acted study of two individuals with drastically different mindsets and what happens when circumstances bring them together. The movie takes the form of an unsentimental character study, even as Audiard adroitly touches the emotions of his audience.
Rust and Bone also meets the criteria of a romance and even an inspirational tale, although the director does all he can to avoid the clichés of the genres - for a while. After presenting a blunt, tart-but- touching look at Stephanie and Ali, the filmmaker finally reaches an impasse. How does one bring together two such disparate souls? Audiard and co-scripter Thomas Bidegain, working from Craig Davidson's writings, elect to go the epiphany route, giving one character a big, fat melodramatic scene to set up an emotional breakthrough. The second the scene began, I knew what was coming and bemoaned what felt like a narrative cheat. As annoying as I found the resolution, it was not grievous enough to spoil the movie. There's too much good going on here to let one big mistake sour the total experience.
Marion Cotillard is a big part of the good. Tough but tender doesn't begin to convey the richness she gives to Stephanie. Early in the film, Stephanie is involved in a horrible accident that results in her losing both legs around the knees. The way Cotillard plays the aftermath of the horrible incident manages to feel universal while remaining specific to the character. Visually, the digital removal of Stephanie's legs is done so perfectly that after the initial shock, you likely won't think about the special effects at all.
Matthias Schoenaerts is just as well cast. His body looks powerful, not sculpted - perfect for a character with a history of boxing. Schoenaerts' performance is as strong as Cotillard's, a particularly impressive feat given his character's muted presentation style. I appreciated watching the interactions between Ali and his young son Sam (Arand Verdure). Some of the moments are disturbing, but the relationship between the two feels genuine.
The sex scenes between Ali and Stephanie are startling: forceful and realistic appearing, they are actually erotic. Other pluses include director Andiard's use of quick-cut images to establish scenes - check out the single bloody tooth bouncing across a roadway, or the blissful orca-conductor vista. Alexandre Desplat's unobtrusive score enhances the film, as does a number of well-chosen and placed songs.
So much good, and then the big mistake. I can live with that. Rust and Bone is something special that deserves to be seen.