It’s possible the ailments afflicting the French drama Rust and Bone are not the result of anything culturally specific. They could simply be the the sole artistic bias of writer-director Jacques Audiard, with no reflection on his fellow, Sorbonne-educated countrymen. But damned if—in their dark, existential, ennui-riddled self-importance—they don’t feel oh-so-French.
As a follow-up to 2009’s Academy Award-nominated prison crime drama, A Prophet, Audiard chooses to explore the weighty, symbol-laden world of scars—both physical and mental. He starts by introducing us to Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts from the visceral indie Bullhead). Ali is a broke ex-boxer, single father to a blond moppet, who flees Belgium to shack up with his estranged sister in Antibes, a seaside resort town in southern France. Struggling to make ends meet as a bouncer, he crosses paths with Stéphanie (the ever-fetching Marion Cotillard from Dark Knight Rises and La Vie en Rose), who’s gainfully employed as a whale trainer. In short order, he’s getting his face tenderized in underground mixed martial arts competitions, and she’s had her legs bitten off by an Orca. No, really.
These two wounded characters drift together, bonded—one supposes—by their mutual, unspoken pain. In the wake of her accident, Stéphanie mopes around her apartment, the camera lingering lovingly on the stumps of her legs. (Producers obviously got their money’s worth out of the special effects.) Ali, unwilling to feel sorry for her (or perhaps incapable of feeling much of anything), does his best to get her out of the house. Eventually, she’s swimming in the ocean, dancing in her wheelchair and trying on a pair of artificial legs. See, she’s physically broken but emotionally resilient. He, on the other hand, is in exceptional physical shape, but his heart’s out to lunch. The we-can-see-where-this-is-going friendship between Ali and Stéphanie takes a slight turn when she accompanies him to his first back-alley fight. Watching him beat the hell out of some other musclebound dude, she gets a major girl boner. Figuring they might as well be friends with benefits, Ali and Stéphanie start having sex with one another—that is, on the occasions when he’s not busy having sex with other random women.
It’s clear, of course, that Stéphanie has feelings for Ali. For his part, Ali continues being his usual meathead self—acting as a craptacular father to his son and remaining blissfully unaware of Stéphanie’s swelling emotions. So everyone’s having sex, but nobody’s feeling better about it. No one combines full frontal nudity and depression quite like the French.
There are elements to Rust and Bone that work beautifully. It’s always a pleasure to see Cotillard work, and she does a sublime job here, avoiding any hint of melodrama or histrionics. If ever there was an actress born for glamorous roles, it’s Cotillard. But she remains blissfully free of ego, submerging herself in the role of this physically damaged, emotionally drained woman. The film is shot evocatively, capturing both the beauty and the seediness of its seaside setting—a perfect mirror for the main characters. Clearly, there’s skill in front of and behind the camera.
While individual parts are appealing, though, the film never really pulls itself together. Whale training and fight clubs? Single fathers and booty calls from legless hotties? Like Silver Linings Playbook before it, Rust and Bone feels like three completely different screenplays hot-glue-gunned together. Things only get sillier as the story progresses, with Stéphanie suddenly becoming Ali’s fight manager. The ending is too preposterous to even discuss, turning an admirably unsentimental story into howlingly manipulative bathos.
Kudos to Audiard for trying to assemble such an anti-romantic film and for treating disability with such matter-of-factness. Bonus points for putting Cotillard in front of the camera and letting her do anything, really. But with the mismatched narrative elements and wildly uneven tone, it’s kind of a wash. This tough-love story proves, in the end, to be very tough to love.