If there’s a single figure in world cinema that I haven’t really been able to pin down it’s probably Jacques Audiard. Audiard isn’t an overly prolific filmmaker, but he’s been making films since the mid-90s and he rose to a particular level of prominence with his 2008 film A Prophet, which is among the greatest crime films ever made and one of the landmark films of the last decade. I was so excited by A Prophet that I looked back on some of his earlier work and was generally disappointed. Most of them were solid movies that did interesting things, but none of them really seemed to be operating at anywhere near the level of his breakthrough. This had me thinking that A Prophet was either a lightning bolt on inspiration or that it marked the beginning of a creative renaissance for Audiard which would carry on into his follow-up effort. I was worried that the former was the case when the film debuted at Cannes to mixed responses and minimal support from the jury. However, the film did seem to garner a lot more support later in the year, which made me want to see what Audiard was up to for myself.
Rust and Bone is primarily about a young former boxer named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) who has recently moved in with his sister (Corinne Masiero) in the Riviera resort town of Antibes. Ali has a young son named Sam (Armand Verdure), but isn’t overly equipped to care for him. In general, Ali is not a man with a gentle touch. He works as a bouncer and as a security guard and makes a hobby of participating in underground bare knuckle fights for cash. It’s in his capacity as a bouncer that he meets a woman named Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), who works as an orca trainer at a local aquarium, a job which requires a gentle touch if ever there was one. Early in the film, Stéphanie is in in a horrible freak accident which leaves her a double amputee. Without the means to continue with her career, she is left aimless and demoralized. In an act of desperation, she calls Ali and the two begin an unlikely relationship which will help both parties find purpose in their lives.
Having seen the film, it makes sense that a Cannes film festival crowd wouldn’t have necessarily loved it. In many ways this feels less like a French art film and more like the kind of thing that would have gotten a ton of buzz at Sundance if it had been an American independent movie. Like many films that find success at Sundance, this is a relatively straightforward story about a pair of ordinary lower-middle class people who come together because of a high concept twist. What differentiates Rust and Bone from the prototypical “Sundance” movie is its style and execution. While it obviously doesn’t have a huge Hollywood budget, it does have some pretty solid production values as far as French character studies go, and Audiard employs it wisely. For one thing, he gives the film a really solid soundtrack which bookends the film with Bon Iver music and also throws in some cleverly chosen tracks from the B-52s and (shockingly) Katy Perry. He also throws in some cool tracks from more obscures sources and beyond all this he also brings in Alexandre Desplat to score the rest of the film.
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine gives the film a really cool look which uses a lot of lens flare in order to accentuate the heat of the beachside resort town. The film also employs some good special effects in order to make Marion Cotillard’s injuries look very real. I suppose this is the same technology that made Lieutenant Dan into an amputee almost twenty years ago, but they’re employed much more extensively here. Speaking of Marion Cotillard, she’s really good here. I wouldn’t call it the best work of her career, but it is very solid and it certainly anchors the film and prevents it from dipping into a saccharine pity-fest. I’m less familiar with the career of Matthias Schoenaerts but his work here is very good, his character could have easily been a stereotypical meathead but Schoenaerts finds the humanity in the guy, flaws and all.
All in all, Rust and Bone more than shows that Jacques Audiard is more than capable of maintaining the directorial prowess that he displayed in A Prophet. However, the script he’s written in order to display this talent isn’t really worthy of his talents. It’s not a bad story at all, but I don’t think it does anything spectacularly original and some of its twists border on straight-up melodrama. There’s more than enough of interest in the central relationship to make up for a lot of the shakier moments in the screenplay, but there are still a few too many valleys between the peaks for comfort. The film isn’t a classic in the way that A Prophet was, but it’s more than good enough to make it both completely worth seeing while also making me as curious as ever to see what Audiard does in the future with his newfound clout and financial support.
*** out of Four