Rust and Bone

A closer relative to Jacques Audiard‘s 2001 film Read My Lips, Rust and Bone marks a break from the more overt criminality of recent films A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. While there are familiar allusions to life on the fringes of society and crime, Audiard instead focuses on the relationship that develops when a whale trainer loses her legs in a freak accident and seeks comfort in the arms of an emotionally stunted street fighter.

Ali (Schoenaerts) moves from Belgium to Antibes with his young son, landing at his overworked sister’s flat. Getting a job as a bouncer, he encounters whale trainer Stephanie (Cotillard) on a drunken night out. The next time they meet, her legs have been amputated following a disastrous accident during one of her performances alongside trained orcas. It’s a strange idea, conceived in the extreme and brought down to Earth with a resounding thud. As two damaged people struggle to reconcile with their emotional and physical obstacles, their problems eventually transform an under-developed theme into a distinct narrative hurdle.

This being melodrama, there aren’t any inherent issues with such an outlandish crossing of worlds. Rust and Bone‘s principal failure is that these worlds, these characters, aren’t given the slightest bit of breathing room before they are thrown together. By the time they begin their abrupt courtship, Ali and Stephanie are as strange to us as they are to each other. Which isn’t to say that Schoenaerts and Cotillard don’t appear to know exactly what’s going on, which makes it all the more frustrating. Both give commanding performances, but why any of this is happening or who the two people really are remains unclear. Any interest in their relationship is quickly laid to rest because there isn’t a sense of what they have been through prior to meeting each other. For a film which posits the amassed scars and and bruises of a hard-knock life as one of its central themes, it’s a little disconcerting.

Rust and Bone also peddles a dodgy kind of realism. Asking us to accept that a patient, undemanding lens should act as our sole window into these people, and to note Cotillard’s lack of make-up as a palatable form of raw honesty is a hard sell. It’s a beautifully-shot film, but there’s a frequent naivety in the way Audiard seems to expect something to flower organically if we remain a patient observer. Or worse, that we should form a bond with these people simply by observing their surface self-interest. With their development left to the repeated activity of swimming and sex, there’s no need for dialogue. Ali’s bluntness when he first suggests they have sex is played for a laugh, but there’s little beyond his straightforward attitude toward everything. Their intimacy and Stephanie’s growing trust might have been portrayed as a gradual understanding of each other’s needs and desires, but Ali’s consistently pneumatic lovemaking suggests otherwise. As Rust and Bone progresses at a surprisingly measured pace, the focus shifts from Stephanie’s recovery to Ali’s street fighting, and discovers little at the core of the hot-headed pugilist. There’s a growing exasperation about the film as narrative cul-de-sacs start to mount.

Its finest moments arrive in the aftermath of Stephanie’s accident. After Ali has carried Stephanie out to sea in his arms, the enveloping sense of freedom as she swims out into the sun’s shimmering reflection is palpable. No hand-holding is required to make us feel enormous sympathy for Stephanie’s loss (the remainder of her legs are rendered expertly using CGI), but a nagging feeling remains. If she wasn’t so opaque there might be a story that firmly engages. Her time spent afloat is wonderful, but it doesn’t feel earned. She’s defined only by her loss, and Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain seem to know this as the film stutters forward and Cotillard’s role shrinks to the point of invisibility. After it has ceased to be about Stephanie’s recovery, her and Ali’s relationship, or Ali and his sister, Rust and Bone seems to finally decide that Ali alone is the centre of the film, and follows his journey to a snowbound kickboxing academy. It’s a bridge too far, and only serves to compound just how undernourished it all is.

Rust and Bone tries to play like a character study when conversation is absolutely necessary, but it’s quite evident that there’s little to be learned. Ali and Stephanie aren’t interested enough in each other to draw out anything substantial. “Why do you fight?”, She asks him after a trip to the beach. “Because it’s fun…” comes the reticent reply. “The same reason you train the fish. Because it’s fun.” Unfortunately for us she doesn’t have a response, because there’s nothing to expand on.

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