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.
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.