Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) is trying to look after his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) but has little money and few prospects. Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is an orca trainer whose world is upended when she is involved in an accident with one of the whales during a show and her legs are amputated as a result. While working as a bouncer Alain meets Stéphanie after she is involved in an altercation and from there the pair strike up a casual romance. As Stéphanie tries to cope with the loss of her legs Alain is trying to cope with bringing up a young son while capitalizing on his physical strength to make money by prize-fighting and as their relationship develops they find strength in each other in different ways.
The Critics Say
“Cotillard’s performance as Stephanie is flawlessly naturalistic, yet underpinned by all the emotional power necessary to play a woman in the midst of total transformation.” – Simon Kinnear, Total Film
Original title: De rouille et d’os
Country: France, Belgium
Director: Jacques Audiard
Ciematographer: Stéphane Fontaine:
Writer: Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Runtime: 120 minutes
In Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard brings together two discrete narratives exploring the indomitability of the human spirit. On the one hand is Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), an indigent single father and ex-boxer who turns to street fighting to make ends meet and on the other is Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer who suffers a horrific accident and has both of her legs amputated as a result. These two people come together to find strength in each other in unexpected ways.
At first glance Rust and Bone represents something of a narrative departure from Audiard’s previous film, the ruthless prison drama A Prophet (2012), yet the two are closer in tone than it initially seems. Both films focus on society’s outsiders but while A Prophet is concerned with the strength of self, its protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim) doing much to drive his own prosperity, Rust and Bone explores the healing effect of others. The relationship between Alain and Stéphanie is initially defined by their contrasting physicalities; he is muscular, imposing and physically fit while she is trying to overcome the difficulties caused by the amputation of her lower legs. The depth of their relationship – and their narrative – is driven by what lies beneath the surface, in particular his surprising sensitivity and her formidable strength of will.
Theirs is not a love-at-first-sight fairytale, instead the pair drift in and out of each other’s lives intermittently. At one point this becomes a point of contention as their early relationship consists of little more than casual sex; after Alain is absent for an extended period, undoubtedly seeing other women in the meantime, Stéphanie delivers an ultimatum, insisting that their relationship should mean more than mere sex at their convenience. This represents a turning point in their relationship which if anything is fortified by this clear setting of boundaries. It doesn’t, however, prevent Alain’s continued absences, yet we get the impression that he becomes more focused on self-improvement than self-degradation, culminating in a spell at a remote, snowbound training camp where his relationship with his son takes a dramatic turn.
Rust and Bone does occasionally lapse into sentimentality; the opening, in which we see Alain’s unlawful means of providing for his son, is accompanied by a soft, introspective piano track by indie folk band Bon Iver, which sits slightly at odds with the content which it addresses. Visually, it is a sensitively handled opening which goes a long way to establishing Alain’s dire straits but accompanied by the soundtrack it resembles more of a navel-gazing music video. Similarly and more objectionably, Stéphanie’s road to recovery is marked by her memories of her performances with the orca whales and the reenactment of the choreography of their shows; at this point the track we most identify with this aspect of her life, Katy Perry’s ‘Firework,’ sounds out of nowhere, projected onto the viewer, it seems, from the vividness of her memory alone.
Audiard’s film is undoubtedly at its best when it allows its human relationships play out without such signposted character developments. Alain’s relationship with his son Sam (Armand Verdure) does sometimes feel like a sidenote to the prominent narrative played out between he and Stéphanie, yet perhaps this is a conscious point of the film; much of the time Sam is little more than an inconvenience to his father who doesn’t always appear to know how to react to his son’s behaviour and seems even more perplexed as to where this demanding, boisterous child has come from. There is also Alain’s relationship with his sister, a relative who has not featured much in his life and who he imposes upon when he needs help caring for his son. Their bond sours when he inadvertently causes her to lose her job.
There is a complexity to the interlinking relationships within the film and their constantly changing dynamics. Most central to the success of Rust and Bone is the authenticity of feeling between Alain and Stéphanie, two people who on the surface don’t seem too compatible with each other. Theirs is a relationship built on mutual support, initially in a very literal way as Alain carries Stéphanie on his back during a break at the beach, but also in the fierceness they coax from each other, most prominently symbolised when Alain, almost out cold on his back, finds a last reserve of strength during a street fight after seeing Stéphanie walk into view on her prosthetic legs. If Audiard’s point is laboured here it is a point worth making and perhaps one of the messages of the narrative as a whole: in others we find strength.
More by Jacques Audiard
A Prophet (2009) was Audiard’s follow-up to The Beat That My Heart Skipped and if the bar was set high by this previous work then the director vaulted right over it with this one. A prison drama more visceral and authentic than most it also launched its charismatic lead, Tahar Rahim, into the spotlight of critically-acclaimed European cinema. Probably the hardest-hitting of Audiard’s films, it is absolutely one of his most engrossing.