TORONTO REVIEW: Visceral Rust And Bone, Marion Cotillard's Best To Date, Not For The Faint Of Heart
Rust and Bone is essential. It’s life and death. It’s like fucking at a funeral. It throws the grit of existence in your face and while you reel at our insubstantiality and balk at our crudity as human beings, it shows you that love is the only transcendent force we possess. What separates man from beast.
There is no doubt it will polarize. There is nothing commercial here apart from the pulling power of Marion Cotillard. Cinematographically it is an expressionistic essay; intellectually, a two-hour conversation with its filmmaker. And physically it is a kick in the teeth, a depiction of poverty, sex and violence which crosses most known codes of acceptability.
I would expect nothing less from director Jacques Audiard. From Read My Lips to The Beat My Heart Skipped to A Prophet, (the latter both also shot by Stephanie Fontaine) this is as ever courageous work. He is skilled at combining grainy realism with something esoteric — beyond romance. He creates criminal heroes within almost apocalyptic fairy tales.
The premise of Rust and Bone is unbelievable — risible, even — and sounds more French farce than dramatic arc: A love story between a bare-knuckle street boxer and a woman who trains orca whales and loses her legs after a Seaworld accident.
Adapted from a series of short stories by Craig Davidson, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), homeless and penniless with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Cerdue) on his shoulders, turns up at his estranged sister’s in Antibes in the South of France. She houses them in her grimy garage, he gets a job as a bouncer in the local nightclub and rescues Stephanie (Cotillard), bloodied after a brawl. They don’t see each other again until after the accident; until after Stephanie has lost both legs to a killer whale. She calls him. He shows her no pity, and from there a relationship develops.
As we move forward the stakes are raised and the scales turn. Audiard uses his common thematic - the juxtaposition of two characters, one the likeable criminal, the other the vulnerable — as Ali, involved in illegal street fighting and surveillance crime, compromises his relationships with Stephanie, his son and his sister. Simultaneously Stephanie begins to find her new identity and gets released back into her life, with or without him.
Relative unknown Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) is astonishing as Ali. He does nothing and everything, and, looking like a pit-bull, is at once a combination of unhealthy-yet-attractive and physically fit. And the bond between him and child actor Armand Cerdue is also extraordinary, almost symbiotic.
This is also the best work I have seen Cotillard do. There are multiple moments in the film which are almost transcendent and indelibly stain the mind’s eye. Your heart leaps when Ali and Stephanie first have sex and you see that she has found renewed hope; a will to live, the will to return to work and confront her assailant. You feel empowered when you see her amputated legs resplendent with fresh tattoos (reading 'Droite' and 'Gauche'). And you reel when she walks, prosthetic limbs on display, into the middle of a fistfight — possibly one of the coolest female character moments I have ever seen. It is all-physical.
This is apt because Rust and Bone is corporeal. It tells you this in the opening shot sequence, when a montage of water and feet in sandals is accompanied by the overbearing sound of breathing and footsteps. The film is all about the body, about control and the loss of it. About the dichotomy between unwanted pain and pain sought — the accident and the bare knuckle boxing. The violence, the sex, is thus immediate and visceral. And whether you want to be or not, you are there — you can almost touch it, feel it, reach them with your hands.
The fine lines between power and death are visible here too. The metaphors are clear; from the force of the whales leaping in and out of the water to the unseen dangers of ice and snow, we know that nature is bigger than us and in that terrifying reductivity there is love between father and son, man and woman.
It is terribly intense, and French. There is no other way to describe it. And whereas I went out and bought the soundtrack (Bon Iver, Lykke Li, with score by Alexandre Desplat) and want to go back and see it again, the ferocity with which I liked it — was moved and haunted by it, and found it real and refreshing — could also be the ferocity with which it is loathed and eschewed for being pretentious and even sentimental. But like Audiard, Cotillard, Schoenaerts and I suspect everyone else who worked on the project, I’m happy to have that argument and suggest that this film is so good, it stands alone. This is not half-baked ennui — whatever anyone else thinks about it.