r u s t a n d b o n e
A film about a romance between a killer whale trainer and an illegal gypsy boxer from Belgium making a life in Antibes. Really? Yes. Exactly why cinema needs Rust and Bone.
In this current climate of endless remakes and Teenage Ninja Turtle reboots it's a small wonder this film ever saw the light of day and we should be pleased it did. Based on the short stories of Craig Davidson, and directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat My Heart Skipped) Rust and Bone is an honest, unflinching look at poverty and beauty, love and loss and survival beautifully bound together by two mesmerising central performances by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts.
Ali (Schoenaerts) is suddenly forced to take care of his 5 year old son, Sam whom he barely knows. They leave Belgium for his sister Anna's house in Antibes and hope of a better life. The opening scenes of Ali hitching lifts with Sam on his back, finding discarded food on a train tells of poverty but there are glimpses of a bond between them that we don't see again until the end of the film. At Anna's house things are better, stable even, but money is still painfully scarce. Ali takes a job as a bouncer at a local nightclub where he encounters Stephanie, the opposite to him in every way, she is beautiful and self-assured, he is poor and rough. Something is missing inside both of them though - they are both searching. As he drives her home he casually mentions that she is 'dressed like a whore' and is surprised when he discovers she trains Orcas. Although he leaves his number they would be destined never to see each other again but for Stephanie's horrific accident at work, leaving without the use of her legs. The CGI used in making Stephanie's body look diminished is remarkable but it is really Cotillard's performance, few words, little movement, all emotion etched out on her face that makes us believe. Stephanie makes a late night desperate call to Ali ,who is now a night watchman and dabbling in gypsy boxing, and the two are reunited. Stephanie is obviously broken physically and mentally but Ali doesn't treat her with kid gloves, he is honest and brusque. She asks 'does it stink in here' he simply says 'a little'. That's how it was before Ali came, there was no air, no light, he simply opens the window and lets the sun in, makes her go swimming, makes her feel sexual. We watch Ali and Stephanie's relationship grow and it is painful, difficult to watch at times but ultimately real.
Ali who is a confusing and complex character. When he says he doesn't care there's no doubt he means it. He is rough with his son, drops him against a table at one point, accidentally, but the lead up was aggressive. He is confrontational towards his sister who has taken him in despite not having seen him for years. He has rough, animalistic sex with women who seem to mean nothing to him and is completely unapologetic about it but then he can be When he offers to have sex with Stephanie to 'see if it still works' the sex is as it would be with his other women – rough although not as rough. He doesn't treat her any differently but as their relationship progresses and she grows stronger she becomes if not dominant than at least something approaching equal. Sam is the son he doesn't know, when he arrives at Anna's he doesn't even know if the boy was going to school, but as the film goes on and after one near tragedy we see his ability to love and be loved. Schoenaerts really nails this part, Ali remains intriguing, attractive no matter what his actions and by the end we are devoted to him.
The theme of light and darkness is played out again and again by Audiard. Shadows play a big part in both senses of the word. In the opening scene Ali and Sam, dirty in cheap clothes are playing with MacDonalds boxes on the beautiful white sands with the azure sea sparkling in the background, the contrast could not be more stark. Meters away from these beautiful beaches, this white sand, these rich people there are families living in complete poverty, struggling merely to survive. Ali will take on a gypsy fight with men bigger than him and risk serious injury or death, for only 500 francs.
Audiard is fighting against the melodrama this film could so nearly veers towards and he mostly succeeds in it. There are impressionistic and unusual images transporting us away from the reality and dramatics. A scene of Stephanie, back at work after her accident, against the glass interacting with a killer whale had me in tears. The boxing scenes are beautifully brutal - a bloodied tooth falling to the ground, men's beaten faces, blood spraying in slow motion whilst helpless Stephanie looks on from a van. These moments and the central performances prevent Rust and Bone from its close call of veering into over-sentimentality. Rust and Bone, for all it's darkness also has light. It is a hopeful film and one that stays in the mind for some time.