Let's get something out of the way first: the trailer for Rust and Bone is terrible. So terrible, in fact, that I almost passed on seeing it. Had I not looked it up and seen that it was directed by Jacques Audiard, who made the exceptional prison film A Prophet, I would not have bothered. The images of Marion Cotillard swimming with whales and reaching up to the sunlight, cut to an M83 song, which in this capacity might as well be a Coldplay track, looks like the kind of generic would-be inspirational treacle that makes little Oscar statues light up in the eyes of Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
Ignore that trailer. It's fiction. It's for a film that doesn't exist. And go and see Rust and Bone. It's not subpar, low-level award bait, there is no false message about the triumph of the human spirit. Rather, it's an intelligent, emotionally complex story about wayward people facing difficult circumstances and making bad choices. You know, the way adults do.
Here's what the trailers don't tell you: yes, Marion Cotillard's character Stephanie trains Orca whales. She is part of the show at Marineworld. In the first act of the motion picture, she meets Belgian drifter Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead). Alain has come to France with his five-year-old-son, presumably to get away from the boy's mother. They have moved in with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and are trying to get on their feet. Alain is a former prizefighter and kickboxer, and he ends up working as a bouncer at a nightclub where Stephanie has gone to dance. The lady apparently got a little flirty with the wrong guy, and Alain breaks up a physical fight between them. Seeing that Stephanie can't drive herself home, he takes her in her car--much to the chagrin of her live-in boyfriend. Alain leaves her his number, but she seems like she's never going to call him. That, it would appear, is that.
Or so is our expectation, but again, in Rust and Bone, as in life, the unexpected has a way of taking over. An accident at the water park causes Stephanie to lose both her legs. Her life is irrevocably changed. It's hard to say exactly why she reaches out to Alain. Given the events that follow, my guess is that her regular friends remind her of a side of her life that is gone, and Alain's extreme physicality is appealing to her. As she has lost her sense of her own body, he is perfectly at home in his. Alain is like an animal. He's always either exercising or having sex with a random woman he has met while doing so. One does not expect him to be tender.
Which he isn't exactly, but there is tenderness in the man. More importantly, though, he doesn't mess around, and he isn't phased by Stephanie's injuries. He snaps her out of her funk by making her do things, and also, by engaging her sexually. At the same time, she goes with him to the back-alley, bare-knuckle fights he's started participating in to make money. The brutality of it has a strange allure for her, and her strength inspires him.
Where Rust and Bone goes from there is best left in the cinema. Let's just say, relationships are never simple, and Stephanie's and Alain's gets complicated. He also makes some extremely rash decisions that end up affecting his sister and his son both, and the consequences he never imagined land on him harder than an elbow to the dome. The animal is forced to feel.
Now, if we take all of these things at face value, Rust and Bone might still sound like the kind of film they show us in the trailer. Will Stephanie fight back and, every pun intended, get back on her feet? Will she tame the beast and teach him to love? Will a whale leap over her head, covering her in its cleansing spray? Well, spoiler alert, but none of these things really happen, at least not in any literal or conventional manner. Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain, adapting short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson, doesn't see any of those questions as sufficiently important to drive his narrative. Rather, he is smart enough to realize that normal human behavior is enough to make any story interesting, and casting good people to portray that behavior is pretty much all the movie you're going to need. Rust and Bone is the story of two people trying to figure out what they have to do to get by and then doing it, sometimes looking for support in one another, sometimes going it solo and screwing it up.
Marion Cotillard is excellent as Stephanie. She never pushes too hard on the heartstrings, never allows the performance to be overly showy or false. Instead, the actress plays it simple, letting the absence define itself (with the help of some very good special effects). It's mostly an interior performance, as befitting the movie's dynamic. Matthias Schoenaerts is the one who carries the burden of physicality. Everything Alain does is body driven. He eats with his hands, he pounds on things with his fists, and he screws like a jackhammer. In a way, the story of Rust and Bone is actually the story of how these two people switch places. He reminds her of what it is like to be kinetic and active, and she doesn't so much lead him into a place where he is either forced to be more interior or even make him more comfortable being so. Instead, she serves as a reminder that there are some things in life that you can't shove your way through.
Audiard packs a lot of story into the two-hour running time of Rust and Bone. That most of that story is built on character moments, on small scenes of people being together and interacting, rather than on A-B-C mechanics of plot, is extraordinary. He and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (who, along with Bidegain, also worked with the director on A Prophet) shoot the film with the immediacy and the intimacy of the Dardennes, but also allow for moments of grand beauty, like something you might see in one of the reality-based Ang Lee films, something like Heath Ledger standing below a sky of fireworks in Brokeback Mountain, that amplifies the character's place in life without overshadowing the human being. There are moments here where Audiard could have gone bigger, could have let himself slide into cheese, could have chased that Oscar, but he holds back. It takes a real confidence to avoid the obvious and instead chase the material as deep as it would go. Easy solutions to tough problems maybe make us feel better, but a more thoughtful approach actually causes us to think about what we're seeing and what it means.
In the end, this makes a movie like Rust and Bone more meaningful and more memorable. I ended up feeling better than I do after a standard feel-good movie because, for once, that good feeling is earned. The climactic incident in Rust and Bone is frightening, tense, and no less brutal than what came before, but the landing ends up being softer, the brutality has more purpose, and when the fog settles, everything becomes clear.