Rust and Bone (aka De Rouille et d'os) is one of the most compelling films about love in recent memory. It's also one of the least sentimental; the average moviegoer expects more than a dash of hearts and flowers when they're told they're seeing a love story, but anyone hoping for a three-hankie romance may want to think twice about Rust and Bone. And that's a large part of why this film works so well. Rust and Bone is a drama about two people who are damaged both physically and emotionally, and neither is comfortable with the conventional boundaries of romance. But over the course of two hours we see them both change in profound ways, and the changes are as much about what they do for one another as what they do for themselves. Director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard has created a story that's by turns disturbing and deeply heartfelt, and it's brought to life by a pair of strikingly accomplished lead performances.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has left Belgium for Antibes on the coast of France; he's flat broke and in need of a fresh start, and he's brought along his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) after learning his ex has been using him as part of a drug-smuggling scheme. Ali may care about his son but he isn't much of a parent, displaying a short temper, frequent disinterest, and a lack of simple responsibility. As a result, his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) spends as much time looking after Sam as Ali does and she makes no secret of her resentment. Ali is a physically powerful man who doesn't shrink from violence and was briefly a professional kickboxer; he lands a job as a bouncer at an upscale nightclub, where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) when he has to break up a fight. Stephanie is boldly sexy and doesn't mind showing off her body, but she's in a foul mood when Ali has to drive her home from the club, and it doesn't help when he tells her she's dressed like a whore. However, Ali is just concerned enough about Stephanie to leave her his card when she gets into an argument with her boyfriend after returning home.
Stephanie trains a group of performing whales at Marineland, but when the act goes horribly wrong one day, she awakens in a hospital to discover she's lost her legs. She adjusts reasonably well to her new circumstances physically, but emotionally she's hitting bottom when she gives Ali a call. He drops by, takes her to the beach, and is willing to help her without hovering over her; his pragmatic nature and lack of fuss agrees with her, and they strike up a friendship. One day, Stephanie confesses she's no longer sure of herself sexually after what's happened to her body, and Ali bluntly replies that he's willing to have sex with her if she wants. Ali and Stephanie soon find themselves in a relationship, though she has to tell him that's what's happening, and she becomes his sidekick and eventual manager when he discovers he can make quick cash fighting in illegal bare-knuckle brawls. However, Ali's irresponsibility and indecisive moral compass eventually catch up with him just as Stephanie is beginning to feel at peace with herself again.
In Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard tells a story that's skillfully drawn, but still has the slightly messy feel of real life; he isn't afraid to let his characters show their ugly and unsympathetic sides at times, and the plot sometimes seems willing to go wherever it wants, following a path that takes a while to reveal itself. But the odds and ends all feel purposeful in the long run, and while the film has a stylish visual sense (especially in the scenes at Marineland), the look matches the feel of the movie, striking but honest and just messy enough to suggest reality. And Audiard was lucky enough to find two actors more than equal to the task of transforming the principal characters into flesh and blood. Matthias Schoenaerts, who showed remarkable promise in last year's Bullhead, is excellent as Ali, a man who expresses himself most eloquently with his body rather than his voice, and he manages to make a virtue of the character's often inarticulate nature and reluctance to open up. Schoenaerts is also willing to give free reign to Ali's brutal side, both inside and outside the boxing ring, and the blunt physicality of his work recalls Marlon Brando's early triumphs in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. And while Marion Cotillard's status as an Oscar winner and international star makes the excellence of her performance a bit less of a surprise, that doesn't mean her work here is any less memorable as Stephanie grapples with love, sex, identity, and the integrity of her body as she falls into a relationship with a man who often struggles to explain himself. Cotillard has also made Stephanie's sensuality a vital part of her character even after she's lost her legs (the effects team that "removed" Cotillard's stems have made the illusion powerfully effective). Rust and Bone never makes love look easy or suggests the central relationship was always meant to be; in this film, fate and emotional uncertainty play a bigger role in Ali and Stephanie's story than Cupid. The struggle against physical and emotional obstacles is the heart and soul of Audiard's message, and he makes it resonate without manipulating the audience. Rust and Bone is a remarkable, powerful work that's well worth investigating if you're not afraid of a story about love that puts a real sting in its tale.