Audiard has been a darling of French cinema for some time – the son of screenwriter/director Michel Audiard (Garde à vue, Any Number Can Win) has twice won the César Award for Best Film (as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film not in the English Language) for 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped and 2010’s A Prophet. And Rust and Bone was picked over the international smash The Intouchables as France’s official Oscars submission, though it failed to cop one of the Best Foreign Language Film nominations for 2012.
The film centers on Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young man with dreams of a professional kickboxing career who finds himself down and out in southern France accompanied by his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). The self-centered Ali catches a break from his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), who houses and feeds him and her nephew in her Antibes home.
Ali gets a job as a bouncer in a nightclub. His life takes another turn when he rescues Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) during a nightclub brawl. She’s a trainer of orca whales at the local Marineland; strikingly beautiful and somewhat aloof, it seems unlikely the pair will connect. But a tragedy soon strikes, and a relationship is forged that will – cliché time – change their lives forever.
There have been so many stories like this over the years that we can all think of ones like it – diamond-in-the-rough man and the life-scarred woman grow and heal with each other’s help. And Audiard’s sometimes glacial pacing – which stretches this story far longer than it needs to be – makes for some glazed-eyed viewing even when physical stuff goes full monty.
What takes this TV-movie-of-the-week tale and turns it into a palatable feature are the performances, particularly those turned in by Cotillard and Schoenaerts. Obviously, the Academy Award-winning Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) is well known for making anything she appears in better in more ways than one; she’s one of the few fine film actors today who’s also a very bankable star. Her portrayal of Stéphanie – which has her among the SAG Award for best actress nominees – works so well because she can convey the assured personality of her character at the beginning of the movie just as believably as she can present the damaged individual she later becomes. Her character’s third act – when she regains her sense of self-worth and purpose – also feels authentic thanks to Cotillard’s talents.
Schoenaerts (Loft, Bullhead) is a wonderful mix of masculine aggressiveness and tender sensitivity as Ali. His character’s maturation during the course of the movie is interesting because Schoenaerts doesn’t telegraph what’s coming next at any moment – Ali’s childishly self-indulgent side certainly gets free reign, but by gesture, look and vocal inflection we see fits and starts of the man he could and should be. Look for the already steadily-working Flemish actor to become more and more in demand after this engaging performance.
There’s good support too, from young Verdure as Ali’s son to Masiero’s long-suffering sister and Bouli Lanners as Ali’s colleague and illegal-fight promoter Martial. And in non-acting accolades, longtime Audiard collaborator Alexandre Desplat (also known for compositions accompanying such films as Moonrise Kingdom and The King’s Speech) has provided some suitably low-key scoring for this film; another laurel should go to all involved (it’s a long list) in creating the very special visual effects for this movie. Rust and Bone is no revelation as a film, but it ultimately works because the acting and other elements I’ve mentioned elevate the material.
Rust and Bone (www.rustandbone.com) opens in Nashville today (Jan. 18) at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Green Hills Village Dr. (www.regmovies.com). Rated R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language; in French with English subtitles, 120 min. Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Mr. Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the short-story collection “Rust and Bone” by Craig Davidson. Starring Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero, Céline Sallette, Bouli Lanners and Jean-Michel Correia.
*Photos by Roger Arpajou/Why Not Productions and Jean-Baptiste Modino courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.